Early in my career, I took a job with a program that recruited and trained women on welfare, offering the training and support they needed to move into high-paying jobs with good benefits in the building trades. I saw firsthand how important hard work and perseverance are for those who want to lift themselves up out of poverty and into successful careers. But I also saw clearly how no amount of hard work, grit or negotiation could guarantee equal pay for equal work. The pay gap between men and women existed everywhere we looked.

Society has changed a lot in the three decades since I took that job, but the gender pay gap has stubbornly persisted. According to data released last month by the National Partnership for Women and Families, Maine women earn just 78 cents for every dollar earned by Maine men. Annually, that’s an average wage gap of $10,093.

All told, Maine women who are employed full-time lose nearly $3 billion every single year to the wage gap.

This inequality between the genders hurts women and their families in the short and long term. According to a study by the American Association of University Women, the wage gap allowed men who graduated in 2008 to pay off 44 percent of their student debt by 2012, while women who graduated the same year paid off only 33 percent in the same time period.

But it also affects Maine taxpayers: Women who are paid less than men contribute less to Social Security and save less over the course of their careers. That means lower retirement incomes and a greater likelihood of poverty and need for public assistance.

The wage gap exists across industries, within occupations and regardless of educational level. Contrary to what some would have you believe, it can’t be explained away with excuses about women’s choices. It is a tangible reality of what it means to be a woman in the workforce.

Outright discrimination is and should be illegal, but while overt bias against women plays a role in perpetuating the wage gap, other factors are less obvious.

Consider, for example, the “previous salary” question, when employers ask job applicants how much they earned at their current or previous job. The answer to that question can result in a lowball salary offer well below market value.

By basing future salaries on previous wages (which may have been discriminatory), employers perpetuate the earnings divide between the sexes. This practice is an albatross around women’s necks, limiting potential lifetime earnings.

A new job should offer any worker the chance of a clean slate, a fresh start that recognizes their real value. But for many women, the wage gap follows them from job to job, preventing them from ever catching up.

Whether a previous employer simply continued historically discriminatory patterns, or the worker is coming from a traditionally underpaid or undervalued profession, as women disproportionately do, requiring disclosure of prior salaries takes away the opportunity for a worker to rise above low wages through hard work and personal achievement.

Employers can and should pay their workers a market-based rate that reflects their education, experience, qualifications, credentials and work ethic. Workers deserve to be paid a wage that reflects their real value, not a potentially lower salary based on their last job.

I’ve introduced a bill, L.D. 1259, that would ban employers from asking the “previous salary” question. The legislation would charge the Maine Human Rights Commission, as the agency responsible for upholding Maine’s anti-discrimination laws, with enforcing the new prohibition. Placing the law under the auspices of the commission also means that other historically underpaid groups, such as disabled workers and nonwhite workers, could also seek relief from income discrimination.

Equal pay laws enacted at the federal and state level have been in effect for decades, and we’ve shaved only a few cents off the wage gap. We know inequality will not disappear overnight. But we owe it to Maine women and their families, and to Maine taxpayers, to use every tool available to us.

Maine could join the vanguard in the fight against inequality by passing this law. In doing so, it would join Massachusetts and the cities of New York and Philadelphia in banning the “previous salary” question and helping all workers get paid fairly.

Cathy Breen is a Democratic state senator from Falmouth.

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