By: Allison Gloss
Since the late twentieth century, women have been working longer hours, pursuing higher education in greater numbers, and participating in the work force at higher rates than ever before. However, despite this progress, the wage gap between men and women persists. The wage gap refers to the difference in earning between women and men who are full time workers. Though it seems like the United States has recently made great shifts toward gender equality, in the last decade, the wage gap between females and males has only narrowed by mere pennies. In 2021, it is estimated that American women will earn around 82 cents for every dollar earned by an American man. Ten years ago, in 2011, women earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man, and in 1996, that number was 74 cents. This calculation does not even account for the significantly greater divides among different racial groups. Black women are typically paid 63 cents, Native American women 60 cents, Latinas just 55 cents, and Asian American women are paid as little as 52 cents for every dollar earned by white men in this country. These numbers represent the tangible consequences of the pervasive sexism and white supremacy in the United States.
While the wage gap may seem like some spare change of difference, these numbers quickly add up. Women employed full time in the United States lose a combined total of more than $956 billion every year due to the wage gap. With this money, a working woman in the United States could afford “[m]ore than 13 months of additional child care; one additional year of tuition and fees for a four-year public university…; nearly seven additional months of premiums for employer-based health insurance; nearly 65 weeks of food…; more than six months of mortgage and utilities payments…”, and the list goes on.
There are many factors at play in the explanation of this phenomenon. Part of the wage gap reflects the fact that women are more concentrated in lower-paying occupations. Women are often funneled into jobs based on gender norms and expectations. These are job industries like house keeping, home health care, and childcare work. These industries tend to offer lower pay and far fewer benefits than male dominated jobs. But occupying most of the low paying occupations isn’t the only explanation, considering the wage gap exists regardless of education. Women with master’s degrees are paid just 70 cents for every dollar paid to men with master’s degrees. A major reason for the wage gap has to do with reproduction: mothers and women at childbearing ages experience the wage gap at far greater rates than middle aged women. Employers are less likely to hire mothers; mothers also receive lower salaries and are less likely to receive promotions. Moreover, societal expectations cause women to bear most of the caregiving responsibilities and household chores for their families in addition to their full-time work. Due to this expectation, women tend to work fewer hours to accommodate caregiving and other unpaid obligations.
In order to promote the closing of the wage gap, companies should audit workers’ pay and collect data to determine the levels of disparity between their male and female employees and adjust accordingly. Government implementation of family friendly workplace standards would also help to ensure that mothers are protected from gendered discriminatory practices in the work place. Unfortunately, there exists a social stigma around asking colleagues how much they earn, as a result, it is often hard for women to know if their employers are paying them equally to their peers. If individuals help to break down this stigmatic barrier, more light will be shed on the inequities of the wage gap in the workplace.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened to overturn the progress made toward closing the wage gap. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study “found that working women, particularly women of color, have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.” Industries dominated by female workers, such as restaurants, retail, childcare, education, and hospitality, are the industries that have been most affected by the pandemic. Additionally, with the transition to remote learning, working mothers are spending more than 15 hours more per week than fathers on childcare and household chores. This increased burden is causing many women to leave the workforce. The pandemic’s effect on the US economy has stalled progress towards narrowing the wage gap and has the potential to expand the divide. Without concerted action, the wage gap in this country will not close any time soon. Companies, employers, and individuals must work towards pay equality for the sake of our families.