Twenty-one cents on the dollar.
This is the striking yet typical disparity in pay, relative to men, that millions of working women faced last year.
This month, as we mark Women’s History Month and celebrate the many strides made towards gender equity, we should renew our commitment to closing the gender wage gap and ensuring that all women are able to achieve their full earning potential.
From the late 1970’s into the early 2000’s, much headway was made in closing the gap in median annual pay between full-time working men and women. But progress on reaching pay equity has all but stalled, and the wage gap has stubbornly endured, at about the same size, since 2005. Gendered pay inequity has indeed remained a fixture of the U.S. economy, persisting in nearly every occupation and at every level of educational attainment. And, as it always has, the gap hits women of color the hardest: for every dollar that a white male earns, African-American women earn only 63 cents, and Latinas and Hispanic women, just 54 cents.
So what continues to drive this disparity?
Certainly, as many rightfully point out, blatant discrimination explains a lot of it. Researchers estimate that sex discrimination could account for as much as 41% of the gap. Many women simply aren’t receiving equal pay for equal work.
But there’s more to the wage gap than just wage discrimination for the same or similar jobs.
For one, adult women, and particularly women of color, are wildly overrepresented in low- and minimum-wage industries. Of the 23 million workers who occupy positions that pay $10.50 per hour or less, two-thirds are women, and just under a third are women of color. These women have suffered greatly from wage stagnation in recent decades, due in large part to an eroding federal minimum wage — which, in terms of purchasing power, has lost a quarter of its value since 1968. Wages for these workers aren’t merely low; they are frankly unlivable.
This heavy concentration of women in low-wage work is indicative of the occupational segregation that pervades the labor market more broadly. While many of the formal barriers that kept women from working in professions traditionally occupied by men have been torn down, stereotypes about jobs at which women and men “naturally” excel still segregate industries by gender at every skill level of employment. Whether it’s driving a truck, laboring in construction, or undertaking a STEM career, women are discouraged, explicitly and implicitly, from pursuing these and other nontraditional occupations — even though they are qualified to do so. Instead, they are concentrated in industries and fill occupations that are important — as home health aides, administrative assistants, registered nurses — but not as remunerative.
But even within relatively integrated industries, men tend to be situated in positions higher up on the pay scale. For example, in the restaurant industry, men comprise 48% of the workforce, but are 54% of the managers and 86% of the head cooks. Women, on the other hand, hold an outsized share of lower-paying, front-line service jobs — like cashiering and waiting tables.
On top of facing a hefty wage penalty for doing “women’s” work, women are also hit with an undue tax on caregiving. In the United States, women shoulder most of the unpaid caregiving labor. And, as a result, they are often forced to leave or spend less time in the labor market — sacrificing earnings, work experience, and even promotions.
While the causes of the gender wage gap might be more pernicious than often acknowledged, the consequences are quite clear: these disparities in earnings undermine the financial security of not only women, but also their families, year in and year out, all the way into retirement.
The effects are particularly deleterious for women in low-wage industries. These workers, in addition to receiving unlivable pay, are less likely to have access to prerequisites that help balance work-family life and are also more vulnerable to pregnancy discrimination. For these women, calling off sick to take care of an ill child or being prematurely forced into unpaid maternity leave can be devastating. As the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) points out, the wage gap and its constitutive elements push millions of these women and their families into, or deeper into, poverty.
So what’s to be done?
The complexity and high stakes of the gender wage gap demand an urgent, multi-pronged policy offensive. They include, strengthening education and training for nontraditional jobs would undermine the negative effects of occupational segregation. Paid sick leave, fair and predictable work schedules, and access to high-quality, affordable childcare would go a long way in ensuring that women aren’t penalized for caregiving responsibilities. Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation would improve the economic security of millions of women. And, of course, policies that demand more transparency from employers and strengthen workers’ ability to raise discrimination claims would help root out discrimination in the workplace.
Women have made significant progress in the workforce in the last half century. Yet, as the persistence of the gender wage gap suggests, there is still much progress to be made. The financial security of millions of workers and their families is at stake. It’s time to make the gender wage gap history.
Trevor Brown contributed to this blog post.