The AstraZeneca Case and Why Women Still Make Less Than Men

AstraZeneca Case The women of AstraZeneca have struck one for equal pay. The London-based drug behemoth, which produces medicines for a range of cardiovascular, respiratory and other conditions including various cancers, agreed on June 6 to pay $250,000 to 124 of its U.S. female sales workers. The deal wraps up a Department of Labor lawsuit in which the Philadelphia-based women claimed they were making on average $1,700 less than their male counterparts.

For its part, AstraZeneca denies any wrongdoing, and spokesman Tony Jewell says the firm settled the case simply to end the legal action. But the company has also agreed to review its salaries in 13 states and Washington D.C. to ensure equal wages.

Regardless, the experience of unequal pay is still not uncommon. Forty-eight years after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act women are still making on average 77% of what men do, according to Census data. The figure, however, does not hold true for the public sector and the highest levels of corporate America, says Ariane Hegewisch, the study director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR).

"Transparency doesn't kill anyone," she says, before adding that in instances when salaries are publicly distributed they are much less likely to diverge along gender lines.

According to research compiled by the IWPR, 23% of American companies outright ban their employees from finding out information about peers' salaries, while another 38% discourage it.

Lily Ledbetter had been the victim of sexual harassment for over two decades at an Alabama Goodyear plant, but was only able to prove she was receiving unequal pay after receiving an anonymous note. The women of AstraZeneca only came across their unequal pay, they say, as an unintended result of a general compliance conducted by the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

In view of the difficulty of even finding out about unequal pay, the act named after Ledbetter signed by President Obama in 2009 renews the statute of limitations to reset with every discriminatory paycheck.

But advocates for equal pay want to take the issue further. The Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA) would make it illegal for companies to retaliate against female employees who try and find out information about males' wages. It would also facilitate for the filing of class action lawsuits, which has made it the target of activists and politicians seeking to lessen, not increase, litigation.

Backed by President Obama, and passed by the House, the PFA came up two votes short of overcoming a Republican-filibuster in the Senate in November of last year.

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