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When we talk about gender wage inequality, the first thing we often have to do is convince people that it’s real. The Equal Pay Act has been around since 1963. The law requires that men and women be given equal pay for equal work in the same establishment and a lot of people have the idea that this legislation has taken care of the problem. In fact, 39% of men (and 17% of women) don’t believe that men make more money than women performing the same job. They do, though.

The gender wage gap is real. And, it’s a real problem.

The wage gap that is most often reported is 80%. This number comes from dividing the median income for women that work full-time and year-round by the median income for men that work full-time and year-round. By this comparison, women are paid 80% of what men are paid. Put another way, women would have to work until April 2, 2019 to make up the difference and match what men were paid in 2018. 80% is if you look at all women together, but the wage gap is much worse for women of color. Black women would have to work until August. Native American women would have to work until September. Latina women would have to work until November before they make what white (non-Hispanic) men made the previous year.

All women
80% Must work until April 2, 2019*
Asian-American women 85% Must work until March 5, 2019
White women 77% Must work until April 19, 2019
African-American/Black women 61% Must work until August 22, 2019
Native American women 58% Must work until September 23, 2019
Latina women 53% Must work until November 20, 2019

*Based on 2017 US Census Data with dates adjusted to avoid weekends and holidays

The implications of this are enormous and losses from decreased wages compound over a woman’s lifetime. This impacts her annual earnings, her total earnings, her ability to invest in her education, her ability pay off student loans, her retirement potential, the quality of life for her and her family, and the economy as a whole. In fact, if women were to be paid equally as compared to men (by matched age and education level), the poverty rate for working women would be cut in half.

People sometimes try to explain away the difference by attributing it to differences in education or qualifications or even by blaming it on women’s ambition or negotiating skills. It is true that reporting the wage gap in this way conflates all of the factors that contribute to why women are paid less, but it doesn’t negate the difference. And, the difference is not because of education, qualifications, ambition, or how we negotiate. It’s things like discrimination, penalizing women for parenthood, societal biases, undervaluing women’s work, differences in opportunities, etc. When you break it down, it becomes pretty clear that no matter how you stack things up there is a problem that can’t (and shouldn’t) be explained away.

One of the contributors to the wage gap is that women are over-represented in low-wage jobs and under-represented in high-wage jobs. Women comprise 47% of the workforce, but hold 69% of the very low wage jobs (those that pay less than $10/hour) and only 35% of the high-wage jobs (those that pay greater than $48/hour). Women earn 56% of all Bachelors Degrees in the US, though, so this discrepancy in representation and distribution can’t be explained by lack of education or qualifications for high-wage jobs. Women are more educated and plenty qualified, but still ending up with lower paying jobs.

Part of this representation issue can be explained by the fact that many of women’s jobs fall into the low-wage category because work typically done by women is undervalued in our society. This is not because the work inherently lacks value. Data suggests that the work is undervalued just because it is done by women. Jobs typically filled by women are paid less than those typically filled by men even when they are essentially the same job. For example, maids and house cleaners (typically women) are paid 78% of what janitors (typically men) are paid. Managers in HR (mostly women) are paid 73% of what managers in IT (mostly men) are paid. Furthermore, historical data (from 1950-2000) has shown that when women enter a previously male-dominated field, the average wages for that profession decrease for both men and women in the field even when all other factors are accounted for. When women do the work (or start doing the work), society and employers value it less.

On top of this, women also face a penalty for becoming a parent that their male counterparts do not. Mothers are paid 71% as much as fathers are paid. Mothers are also less likely to be hired than women without children and are offered lower salaries when they are hired. This combines to what is termed the Motherhood Penalty. This is opposite of the Fatherhood Bonus that men experience where they actually see their pay increase after becoming a parent. Lack of paid parental leave and high costs of childcare (along with societal expectations that women are the primary caregiver) also disproportionately impact mothers compared to fathers.

While the types of jobs that women tend to hold and their value according to society are largely related to societal biases and differences in opportunities, it is also clear that women are paid less for the same work.

  • There is a wage gap when you compare workers at the same income level. Women in low paying jobs (childcare workers, restaurant workers, etc.) are paid 71% of what men in low paying jobs are paid. Women in high paying jobs (lawyers, engineers, doctors) are paid 75% of what men in high-paying jobs are paid.
  • There is a wage gap is there when you break it down by education level. Women with less than high school diploma are paid 77% of what men with less than a high school diploma are paid. Women with a high school diploma are paid 77%. Women with some college education are paid 76%. Women with a Bachelor’s Degree are paid 74%. Women with an advanced degree are paid 74% of what men with an advanced degree are paid. This gap is so large, in fact, that women with advanced degrees are paid less than men with 4-year degrees.
  • There is also gap when you break it down by specific job. Female physicians and surgeons are paid 66%. Female accountants are paid 78%. Female software developers are paid 86%. Female travel agents are paid 87%. Female teachers are paid 89%. Female RNs are paid 91%. In 97% of occupations, women are paid less than men.
  • The gap even exists for the exact same people. Transgender woman experience an average pay cut of over 30% after they transition from male to female. While there are multiple potential sources of discrimination at play here, it is notable that transgender men (who transitioned from female to male) do not see a corresponding drop in wages and may even see their wages rise.

There are multiple factors that contribute to the wage gap, and discussion around it often tries to “account for all other factors” to determine what portion of the gap can directly be attributed to discrimination. Recent research found that one year after college graduation, there was a 7% gap that couldn’t be explained (by occupation, economic sector, duration of employment, hours worked, age, geographic region, type of undergraduate institution, institution selectivity, college major, GPA, marital status, parental status, etc.) and 10 years after college graduation the gap had increased to 12%. This insight is important and the direct discrimination gap should be addressed, but the remaining gap can’t be dismissed just because it can be accounted for. Differences that can be explained still contribute to the wage gap and are likely the result of biases, differences in opportunity, and other penalties that disproportionately impact women in the workforce.

Closing the gender wage gap will likely require changes in laws and regulations, employer practices, and cultural norms. To succeed, it’s also crucial to acknowledge that the wage gap varies significantly for women of different racial and ethnic groups and for women of different sexual orientation and gender identity. The wage gap will persist if we focus only on gender bias without adequately addressing other biases (racial, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.) and the combined impact of these biases. It’s crucial to take an intersectional approach so that opportunities are created and the gap closes for all women.

Learn more here and here.