The Gender Wage Gap Is Real and It Doesn’t Seem to Be Going Anywhere

Did you know that September 18th is International Equal Pay Day? And maybe you missed Women’s Equality Day on August 26th, or National Equal Pay Day, which this year was on March 24th, held symbolically on that date to represent the number of extra days, on average, women have to work to catch up to what men were paid the year before. So why do we need all these days – and more importantly, why should more of us sit up and pay attention to them?

Well, women make up more than half of the population of the U.S. (51.1% at last count), roughly 47% of the American workforce, and earn well over half of all types of degrees in the U.S. – but what don’t women earn? The same amount of money that men earn, often for doing the same jobs: according to many studies, women in the U.S. earn approximately $0.82 for every dollar earned by men, and that gap can be even greater for women of color: it’s important to point out that African American women had to work until August 23rd, and Latina women will have to work until October 21st of this year to make the same as men made in 2020. picture of a torso that is half man and the other half womanNot only that, but at the current rate of progress, this gender wage gap won’t close until 2059, or even 2093 by some estimates – so what does this mean for women, and is there anything that can be done to speed things up?

What Is the Gender Wage Gap?

The gender wage gap, or gender pay gap, is one of those things in life that we know is there, but can be hard to put our fingers on. After all, how many of us are inspecting our colleagues’ paychecks, or how do we know how much another person would be earning if they had our job? Not only that, but there are laws against gender-based pay discrimination, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and we’ve got to trust that employers are doing the right thing, right? 

Well, unfortunately, whether it’s intentionally done or not, the truth is that, according to a 2021 report from Payscale, women earn on average 82 cents for every dollar men earn, meaning there’s an 18% gap in pay between the two. But is that literally the case for every woman’s paycheck? Well, no: not only is that number an average, that 18% is described by some as the “raw gender pay gap”: some people believe that, when accounting for other factors besides gender, such as education, experience, location, and industry, the gender wage gap is really closer to 2%. 

This adjusted number is known as the “adjusted” or “controlled gender pay gap,” and there are a few things you should know about it:

  1. Using an adjusted gender pay gap might make it seem like gender-based pay discrimination is a smaller problem than it is, but that’s because it really narrows things down to people doing the same job and getting different pay. Looking at it this way misses all the differences in opportunity between men and women that can be a problem for women even before they get to the bargaining table.
  2. Even if you do just look at the adjusted gender pay gap, making 2% less is still problematic. For one thing, making 2% less for a few years may not seem like that much money, but over the course of decades, it can amount to a significant difference in earnings. Not only that, but if you go into a new job with a history of earning less money, you are more likely to be offered less money, and the cycle will continue.
  3. We don’t seem to be making any headway when it comes to the adjusted wage gap, which makes it even more of an issue. This 2% is equivalent to making 98 cents on the dollar, and in 2015, the controlled wage gap was 97 cents on the dollar – that’s just 1 cent improvement in more than five years.

However you look at the gender wage gap, it’s real, and it represents, on average, $406,280 in lost income for white women, and that number can top $1 million for Hispanic women and is just shy of $1 million for Black and Native American women. Some studies even put the average at more than $530,000 to nearly $800,000 lost to the most fortunate women! It’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away, and is one that has many complicated reasons behind it.

Sticky Floors and Glass Ceilings

In the words of U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe at a Congressional hearing on March 24, 2020, “One cannot simply outperform inequality. Or be excellent enough to escape discrimination.” For women, the hurdles to making equal pay are high, and have been in place for decades, making them hard to move. There are multiple reasons behind the gender wage gap, and it can be hard to pinpoint them all, but some experts break them down into two categories: “glass ceilings” and “sticky floors.”

You’ve probably heard the term “glass ceiling” at some point: it refers to obstacles that stand in the way of women’s advancement, and is usually a problem for women who already have fairly good jobs and who might be stuck in middle management positions. On the other hand, the term “sticky floors” is used to describe a discriminatory employment pattern that keeps women at the bottom of the job scale. illustration of a woman sitting down with two people talking down to herThe many complicated reasons behind women’s inequality in the workplace, whether they’re considered a “glass ceiling” problem or a “sticky floors” problem, include:

  • The fields in which women dominate tend to pay less than fields dominated by men, no matter the level of education or skill required. And guess what? When men start to get into these professions, the pay goes up for them, but the same is not true when women get into male-dominated fields.
  • Women face conscious and unconscious bias; according to the Pew Research Center, 42% of women say they have experienced gender-based discrimination at work. These biases can include the old standards, like women are less efficient, or don’t have the stomach for business, but can also include more subtle biases, like assuming women are going to take parental leave or get pregnant and quit. Stereotypes about women can also make it harder for them to get heard in salary negotiations.
  • The “sticky floor” is a thing because, well, it’s a thing: women are more likely to have to take lower paying jobs; in fact, two-thirds of low-wage jobs in the United States go to women.
  • Women tend to have less time and energy to focus on work because – get this – many are doing as much as 30% more unpaid work than men, like household chores and raising children. We know, there is literally not one woman out there who is shocked by that statistic.
  • The “motherhood penalty” is real: women are more likely to take time off after a birth, and moms are less likely to be hired, they receive lower salaries when they are, and they are less likely to be promoted, despite the fact that studies show mothers make very productive employees (again, is anyone shocked?)

All of these factors add up to real-world problems for women in the workplace, and, because they’re so difficult to address and change in substantive ways, things don’t seem to be moving forward in any real way. 

Is Anything Changing?

not equal sign in blue
The gender gap in pay has remained relatively stable in the United States over the past 15 years, and won’t be getting better anytime soon.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the gender pay gap, there’s even more bad news: according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the pandemic has set women’s labor force participation back more than 30 years. And even if it looks like the gender wage gap has decreased recently – for example, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the weekly gender wage gap for full-time workers shrunk to 17.7% from 18.5% – that’s only because so many low-wage women workers lost their jobs during the pandemic, thus raising women’s average pay relative to men’s. 

Bigger picture, the Pew Research Center announced earlier this year that according to its research, “The gender gap in pay has remained relatively stable in the United States over the past 15 years or so.” And it probably won’t get much better anytime soon, since the effects of the pandemic on the economy might mean that many women will have to take lower paying jobs. Not only that, but many will have missed out on valuable work experience and will have gaps in their employment history, both of which will make negotiating for higher pay even more difficult in the future.

What Can Be Done?

Again, we can’t just expect that women can outperform discrimination, as Megan Rapinoe said. This is not a women’s problem, it’s a societal problem, and there is no one quick or easy solution. There are, however, a few policies that workplaces and the government could look at to help:

  • Ban secrecy surrounding pay, and work to change the culture that treats salary as sacred and rude to ask about. After all, how can you know that you are being paid unfairly if you don’t know how much others make?
  • Prohibit employers from using pay history to determine how much a new employee should make. 
  • Make sure businesses regularly do internal reviews of compensation data to ensure there is no gender wage gap at their company. 
  • Either eliminate salary negotiations, or institute a policy of using “salary bands” to give a range of pay for each position, in order to level the playing field between men and women in salary negotiations.
  • Guarantee workers paid time off for parental and sick leave.

Ok, so maybe the news about the gender wage gap isn’t great. But now we know, and knowing is half the battle – so now we all need to get behind women and decide that this is just not acceptable – and maybe, in the next few years, we’ll be able to push that date back from March 24th to something closer to January 1st. 

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