Federal law forbids an employer from paying men and women different rates of pay for the same job. That’s the Equal Pay Act. A different federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, outlaws sex-based discrimination in all employment decisions, from hiring to assignment of work to firing.
Most of the time, individual plaintiffs bring cases to enforce these rules. But the government also has enforcement power, which can be very helpful when individual damage claims are low, and when patterns of discrimination appear.
As we all remember from civics lessons, the executive branch enforces the law. Among the agencies in the executive branch is the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program, which oversees federal contractors. Contractors all sign contracts agreeing, in exchange for federal money, to abide by non-discrimination laws. Under the Bush administration, however, the agency overseeing them found itself limited to enforcing a very narrow set of discriminatory practices. Those handcuffs have finally been removed. As the new regulations put it,
“The [Bush-era] Standards restrict OFCCP’s ability to enforce the Executive Order’s non-discrimination mandate.”
The “standards” gave almost unlimited discretion to federal contractors to use specified statistical models that evaded a systematic look at sex discrimination in pay.
The new emphasis on pay discrimination may open a new era of equality. People starting their first jobs in the 21st century seem very comfortable with the idea that people should be judged on their ability and effort, not their race, sex, sexual orientation, or disability status. Enforcement of these standards is overdue.