Washington (AFP) – US soccer star Megan Rapinoe testified before Congress Wednesday highlighting the pay inequities between men and women as she urged lawmakers to help end the gender pay gap, a push supported by President Joe Biden.

The hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee occurred on Equal Pay Day, which marks the extra weeks and months which American women — who average just 82 cents for every dollar earned by men — must work to earn the same that their male counterparts made in the previous year. 

“It’s just unacceptable that we’re still fighting for equal pay,” Rapinoe, a two-time World Cup champion who has been the face of American women’s soccer for nearly a decade, told the panel.

“One can not simply outperform inequality, or be excellent enough to escape discrimination of any kind,” the pink-haired 35-year-old added. “I’m here today because I know firsthand that this is true.”

US Soccer reached a deal in December with members of its women’s team on working conditions, but a lawsuit over equal pay claims remains outstanding.

But Rapinoe, mindful of the devastating toll that the coronavirus pandemic has had on women in the US work force, said she and other famous athlete-activists are fighting for female workers nationwide who toil out of the bright camera lights.

“We are looking to carry this torch for so many other women,” she said.

The hearing comes as Democrats who control Congress and the White House are proposing a raft of comprehensive reforms to ensure full equity for women in the workforce, including the Paycheck Fairness Act and legislation that addresses child care for working families, medical and family leave, and fairness for pregnant workers.

Later Wednesday, in a further bid to highlight the issue, Rapinoe joins the president and First Lady Jill Biden at a White House event to mark Equal Pay Day.

When the Equal Pay Act was signed into law in 1963, women were making just 59 cents on the dollar compared to men.

“Today is Equal Pay Day, but it is not a celebration,” the committee’s chair, House Democrat Carolyn Maloney, said in opening remarks. 

Pay inequity “is a disgrace, and it has longterm consequences for women and families.”

Gains have been made over the decades. But the glaring disparity remains, particularly for women of color, in every occupation for which there is available data, said C Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“If we do nothing, women (on average) will not reach economic parity with men until 2059,” she testified. “For women of color it will take more than a century: 2130 for black women and 2224 for Hispanic women.”

– ‘Not a hoax’ –

The coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women workers. Nearly three million women have left the workforce since last year, Mason said, in part because of inability to find affordable and reliable child care as their children stayed home from school and attended class virtually.

Republicans pushed back on the claim that pay inequity was a massive problem, arguing that federal law already prohibits companies from paying employees differently based on gender.

Freshman Republican Nancy Mace, who broke a glass ceiling as the first woman to graduate from The Citadel military college in South Carolina, did not deny that a gender wage gap exits.

“I’m just saying it’s not because of widespread discrimination,” Mace told the hearing, offering that “women in general are willing to trade higher pay for more flexibility.”

But Mason, the policy expert, warned that the wage gap can not be explained away in such fashion.

“It is not a hoax, or the result of women’s individual choices,” she said. 

“It is a result of systemic undervaluing of women’s contributions, skills and talents to the workforce and society. We can and should do better.”