For decades, the courtroom has been Noreen Farrell’s battlefield for women’s rights. As a civil rights attorney, she has represented women who were discriminated against due to a pregnancy, sexually harassed at work and denied overtime or equal pay. She knows the law inside and out and has made it her life’s work to litigate all violations of women’s social, economic and political rights.
Farrell’s gender justice advocacy however, did not start in law school but much earlier. After Farrell’s father passed away from cancer in his 40s, her mother was left alone to support their family of six in the Bronx. Her mother worked long hours as a housecleaner and later as a vocational nurse to ensure that her children received a college education, including Farrell who went on to graduate from Yale University.
Now the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates (ERA), a legal advocacy nonprofit and Women’s Foundation of California grant partner, Farrell continues to uplift women in her life and now around the nation by addressing one of the most pervasive inequities in America today: the gender pay gap.
“My mother was the rock of my family,” said Farrell.
“And there are so many mothers like her across the country,” Farrell continued. “The idea that she would be paid less for the same work [done by a man] or wouldn’t be valued when she had more responsibility than anyone could imagine wouldn’t stand with me.”
In California, women are breadwinners or co-breadwinners in 60 percent of families, yet the average woman earns 84 cents to every dollar a man earns, costing her an average of $322,120 over the course of her career. The pay gap is far worse for women of color. Black women in California are paid 63 cents to the dollar earned by white men and Latinas in this state make just 43 cents for every dollar earned by white men. As a matter of fact, the pay gap for Latinas in California ranks among the worst in the nation.
“That’s a devastating loss in income,” said Farrell. “What could you have done with that money over the course of your life? Could you have paid your gas bill on time? Bought a house? Sent your kids to college?”
The Equal Pay Act is a federal law that was passed in 1963 to prohibit gender-based wage discrimination. However, more than half a century later, women still earn less than men for the same or similar work. For example, hotel housekeepers have contacted Farrell and the ERA reporting that they were being paid less than male custodians at the same hotels. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, janitors, usually men, earn 22 percent more than maids and housecleaners, usually women, although their work requires equivalent skill, effort, responsibilities and working conditions.
A major barrier to closing the gender pay gap is a workplace culture where employees are discouraged from or even penalized for sharing information regarding their salaries. Without this information, employees are unable to negotiate salaries and employers are not held accountable.
“It’s hard to unearth discrimination when you don’t know about it,” said Farrell. “Pay secrecy is the number one reason why pay discrimination exists.”
Farrell and ERA were determined to disrupt this culture of secrecy so in 2015 they sponsored and championed the California Fair Pay Act (Senate Bill 358, Jackson), which became the toughest anti-discrimination law in the nation.
Under the Fair Pay Act, California companies are forbidden from retaliating against employees who ask about their coworkers’ wages. They are now also required to justify pay disparities between male and female employees who are doing “substantially similar” work regardless of their job titles.
Employers sued by workers now have to prove that wage differences are due to factors other than sex, thus holding companies accountable to their workers and providing women an opportunity to advocate for fair pay.
“Now [the employers] are going to have to value the work equally,” said state Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) who introduced the legislation. “This law is a 30-year overnight success,” she continued, hinting to the decades of work it took to make this important law a reality.
Farrell and ERA are not resting on their laurels. In 2016 they continue to fight for equal pay by sponsoring and championing Assembly Bill 1676 (Pay Equity in the Workplace Act, Campos and Gonzalez).
This bill, which made it out of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations committee last week and is currently in the Committee on Judiciary, would prohibit employers from seeking salary history from job applicants. This way, salary negotiations would be based on the requirements, expectations and qualification of the person and job in question, rather than on prior earnings, which may reflect a history of pay discrimination and prevent upward mobility between jobs.
The impact of reporting prior salaries was very real for Aileen Rizo, a math educator at a California county office which works with various school districts across the state. Rizo’s employer set their initial salaries by increasing prior salaries by five percent, and, as a result Rizo came up short, earning $12,000 less than a male colleague even though he had less experience, education and seniority.
“A pay structure based exclusively on prior wages is so inherently fraught with risk,” said the United States District Court in Rizo v. Yovino, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools in 2015. “It reflects historical market forces which value the equal work of one sex over the other, [perpetuating] the market’s sex-based subjective assumptions and stereotyped misconceptions.”
Noreen Farrell, Equal Rights Advocates and their partners in the Stronger California Advocates Network are continuing to push for equal pay for women, ensuring that Assembly Bill 1676 becomes law and that women across the state will not have to follow in Rizo’s footsteps.
“AB1676 promises to hit the pay gap at its origins—with initial hire pay. It will level the playing field in negotiations and break deeply embedded traditions that devalue women in the workplace,” said Farrell. “It is really time to make sure that all women in California have economically secure lives. I am honored to work alongside such incredible partners working together to make this a reality.”