Equal Pay Day: what is it, when did it start?

BY Domenico Montanaro  April 8, 2014 at 6:38 PM EST

The term “Equal Pay Day” was used Tuesday at the White House and on Capitol Hill to highlight the pay gap between men and women.

The Census finds that, as median income goes, women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. And the point of holding “Equal Pay Day” around this time of the year is to show how much longer — nearly three months — a woman would have to work to make up that other 23 percent.

There’s even a purpose to holding it on Tuesday — it represents the extra day or two women would have to work to equal the income of men from the previous week.

But all that didn’t start with this White House or any other White House, for that matter.

The phrase dates back to 1996 and was coined by the National Committee on Pay Equity, an all-volunteer group of women who began meeting in 1979.

The women noticed the disparity in median pay and wanted to bring attention to it. So, 18 years ago, they came up with “National Pay Inequity Day.”

But that wonky phrase didn’t get much pick up.

“It didn’t have a good ring to it and was confusing,” said Michele (pronounced Michael) Leber, chairwoman of the group. She’s been on the board since 1985 and a member since its inception.

“Equal Pay Day” sounded a lot better and started to get some traction. And so a Washington phrase was born.

“It has succeeded beyond what we would have expected,” Leber said, noting that a handful of other countries have even recognized it.

But Leber said the 77 percent statistic is often misused.

“Sometimes people say this 77 cents is for people doing the same work, and it’s not,” she said.

The statistic is often cited by Democrats as evidence of pay disparity. Republicans used a similar statistic to point out the aggregate pay disparity in the White House. A study by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, found that women in the White House make 88 percent of what men make in the White House. But, just like the 77 percent statistic, that accounts for everyone working and is not about equal pay for equal work.

Leber said the group is pleased with the executive orders and frustrated with Republicans for having blocked the so-called Paycheck Fairness Act, which passed the House twice previously and got 58 votes in the Senate. It is slated to come up for a vote Wednesday and will likely not get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. And even if it does, it has zero chance of being taken up by the Republican-led House.