Renee Stromme
Participants in the North Dakota Women's Network 2013 lobby day, WE Rise, stand in solidarity at the state Capitol. (Submitted photo)

Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks, presents equal pay legislation to the North Dakota House Industry, Business and Labor committee on Jan. 21, 2015. (Submitted photo)
"Women belong in all places where decisions are being made ... it shouldn't be that women are the exception." -- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Following a seven-decade struggle, women in the United States finally gained full voting rights in 1920. In the proceeding nine decades we continue to see progress, but there is ample room for improvement.

We have inched our way to increased political participation. The voter turnout rate for women equals or exceeds men's turnout rate (Center for American Women in Politics, 2014). What women don't do at the same rate is run for and serve in office. With fewer women running, there are fewer women serving. The North Dakota state legislature currently comprises 19 percent female officeholders, which is the highest percentage of women North Dakota has ever had in the state legislature.

The dearth of women in office translates to a greater need for a robust grassroots voice for women. We need to work collectively to be sure women's interests are represented in our representative government.

This session a number of legislative proposals have been introduced in North Dakota to advance women's equality. They have been met with varying levels of success. Bills to expand Medicaid for family planning and pregnant women did not pass. Neither did minimum wage increases. Bills addressing violence against women have been widely successful, with near unanimous approval.

A signature women's equality push has been to update our state equal pay laws. Fifty years ago, North Dakota passed fair pay legislation. It hasn't been touched since. It is long past due to update and improve this legislation.

When our state's equal pay law was enacted in 1965, the pay gap was less than 60 cents to every dollar earned by a man. In North Dakota, we've only risen a little over 10 cents to 70.2 cents to every male dollar. The gap represents the overall gap in median earnings of men and women in the state. Study after study shows that some of the pay disparities cannot be explained away by legitimate factors, such as differences in vocation, education or experience. There are numerous factors that lead to that gap. Pay discrimination is one of those factors.

Women in North Dakota do experience pay discrimination. But the current laws to protect against sex-based pay discrimination have not met their basic goal, due in part to discrimination going undetected by employees. Many women never find out that they are being paid less than a male coworker for doing the same work. Therefore, they are not able to challenge this discrimination, and unequal pay persists. This is no accident -- many employers proactively keep their employees in the dark about what others are being paid, sometimes threatening employees with punishment or even permanent dismissal for discussing their salaries.

House Bill 1294 prohibits employers from punishing employees who share salary information with their coworkers. This change would increase employees' ability to learn about and remedy pay disparities. The updates to the North Dakota equal pay laws in House Bill 1257 are predominately a clean-up of a 50-year-old law that addresses pay discrimination.

Wage discrimination does exist and has consequences. Pay disparities cost women and their families thousands of dollars each year while they are working and thousands in retirement income when they leave the workforce. It is long past time for the state to act to ensure that the promise of equal pay becomes a reality. The North Dakota Women's Network supports Bills 1257 and 1294 and as of press time, we are pleased that the state House has passed the bills. Now on to the Senate, where we hope they fare as well.

Legislative success is dependent on the voices of the people. Civic engagement is key to truly gaining equality in women's political participation. Speaking up is needed most to be sure women's voices are heard.

Renee Stromme has served as executive director of the North Dakota Women's Network since the inception of the organization in 2006. Prior to that she worked for the North Dakota Council on Abused Women's Services (NDCAWS) for six years, organizing college communities to reduce violence against women on campus.