When a company pays one employee more than another for the same work, that’s illegal. Nevertheless, pay discrimination persists and negatively impacts the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Maine women, families and children. Our elected officials should do everything in their power to stop it, not dismiss it. This is why we take Sen. Matt Pouliot’s dismissal of our Pay Equity Education Project in a recent column very seriously.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, Maine women currently earn 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man. That’s an annual loss, on average, of nearly $9,000 per year, and that disparity is exacerbated when considering other factors like race.

African American/Black and Latinx women in the United States, for example, earn just 62 cents and 54 cents to every dollar earned by a white man, respectively. In fact, Equal Pay Day for Latinx women is this week: It takes one full year plus until Nov. 20 of the next year for a Latinx woman to make the same amount as a man. This reality is not just supported by lived experience — it is supported by U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Labor data and statistics.

I’ve heard countless women share personal stories in which they discovered they were paid less than male colleagues despite having similar qualifications and hiring timelines for the same position.

So why don’t we hear more about it? The disparity can be humiliating and alienating in workplaces otherwise enjoyed; many female employees face retaliation from bosses and co-workers alike.

This discrimination can also follow women throughout their careers when employers use information about past salaries to shape job offers. Lost wages as a result of pay discrimination add up over the years and make it more difficult to raise a family, pay for education, and save for retirement.

Following the leadership of Sen. Cathy Breen, the Maine Senate tackled one facet of the gender pay gap by passing “An Act Regarding Pay Equality” (L.D. 278) to ban employers from inquiring about a job candidate’s past salary. Asking for past salaries is not necessary for an employer seeking to hire based on experience, education, and the position’s requirements. This was a simple fix that will help confront the gender pay gap, but more needs to be done.

Lifelong inequalities like this don’t just affect women; they impact Maine’s economy as a whole. Consider the nearly $9,000 average annual loss per female worker: When you factor in the number of female workers in Maine, that adds up to a loss of nearly $3 billion among full-time workers alone. That is income that could be used to cover nearly a year of child care, rent, and tuition and fees from a four-year public university for every full-time female worker in Maine. It is income that can be used to boost the local economy, raise a family, and plan for retirement.

It is, in short, a massive roadblock in the way of basic economic security for women, never mind prosperity.

Maine’s gender pay gap won’t be solved solely by banning past salary questions.  But it’s an important first step. Passing laws that combat pay disparities based solely on gender ensures that all businesses are playing by the same rules and give them a chance to thrive, as good business relies on hiring and maintaining employees based on their skills, experience, and qualifications.

Simultaneously, tackling wage discrimination requires us to increase public awareness of the issue and its causes. If we don’t discuss the gender pay gap, we can never hope to end it.

Mainers have always understood the value of hard work, and we know that value shouldn’t be contingent on gender. But a gender pay gap exists. It won’t be solved tomorrow or next year. By abandoning questions about salary history and preventing the continuation of a wage disparity pattern, Maine has taken a step in the right direction toward equal pay for equal work.

That’s something all Mainers can stand behind.

Whitney Parrish is director of policy and programs at the Maine Women’s Lobby.

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