The Wage Gap: The Who, How, Why, and What To Do

Women in the U.S. who work full time, year round are typically paid only 80 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. The wage gap has stagnated, with very little change since 2007. This gap in earnings translates into $10,169 less per year in median earnings, leaving women and their families shortchanged. This disparity is the top concern of working women. Although enforcement of the Equal Pay Act and civil rights laws and other progress, including increased access to reproductive health care, have helped narrow the wage gap over time, addressing the significant pay disparities that remain is critical for women and their families.

Equal Pay is Crucial for All Women

Women of color are paid less than white, non-Hispanic men.

  • Black women working full time, year round typically make only 61 cents for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts.
  • For Latinas this figure is only 53 cents, for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women it is 62 cents, and for Native women it is 58 cents.
  • While Asian women working full time, year round are typically paid only 85 cents for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts, the wage gap is substantially larger for some subgroups of Asian women.
  • The wage gap translates into an annual loss of $23,653 for Black women, $28,386 for Latinas, $24,443 for Native women, and $9,010 for Asian women. Closing the wage gap is, therefore, particularly important for Black, Latina, and Native women who have lower incomes, and are more likely to be in poverty than white, non-Hispanic women and Asian women.

Mothers are paid less than fathers.

  • Mothers who worked full time, year round typically had lower earnings than fathers ($40,000 compared to $56,000) – mothers were paid only 71 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. Mothers of every race are typically paid less than white, non-Hispanic fathers.

The wage gap affects single women without children, as well.

  • Women who were never married and without children were paid 83 cents for every dollar their male peers were paid.

Women are affected by the wage gap as soon as they enter the labor force and the gap continues to expand over the course of a woman’s career.

  • The wage gap is smaller for younger women than older women, but it begins right when women enter the labor force. Women ages 15 to 24, working full time, year round are typically paid 92 cents for every dollar their male counterparts are paid.
  • Among older women the gap is larger. Women ages 45 to 64 working full time, year round are typically paid only 76 cents for every dollar their male counterparts are paid.
  • For women still working at age 65 or older the figure is 77 cents.

Older women also experience a wage gap in retirement income, due in large part to the wage gap they experienced during their working years. 

  • Based on today’s wage gap, a woman who worked full time, year round would typically lose $406,760 over a 40-year career. This woman would have to work nearly ten years longer than her male counterpart to make up this lifetime wage gap. These lost wages severely reduce women’s ability to save for retirement and threaten their economic security later in life.
  • As a result of lower lifetime earnings and different work patterns, the average Social Security benefit for women 65 and older is about $14,753 per year, compared to $18,918 for men of the same age.

Lesbian women make less than men, regardless of their sexual orientation.

  • According to the most recent analysis available, women in same-sex couples have a median personal income of $38,000, compared to $47,000 for men in same-sex couples and $48,000 for men in different-sex couples.

Transgender women make less after they transition.

  • One study found that the average earnings of transgender women workers fall by nearly one-third after transition.

Women with disabilities also experience a wage gap.

  • Women with disabilities working full time, year round are typically paid just 83 cents when compared to their male counterparts with disabilities.

Women at all education levels experience a wage gap.

  • Among full time, year round workers, women who started, but did not finish high school, make 74 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make.
  • In 2017, women in the United States with only high school diplomas working full time, year round were typically paid only 76 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts.
  • Among workers with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, women typically make 75 cents for every dollar men make.
  • Even when women earn a Bachelor’s degree, they still make less than what men with an Associate’s degree make ($52,439 and $54,700, respectively)—and men with only a high school degree but no college education typically make more than women with an Associate’s degree ($42,440 and $40,641, respectively).

Women in nearly every occupation face a wage gap.

  • There is a gender wage gap in 97 percent of occupations.
  • Even workers in low-wage occupations21 face a wage gap – based on the most recent year of data women who work full time, year round in low-wage occupations typically make only 85 percent of what men working in low-wage occupations make.

Causes of the Wage Gap

Despite the fact that women have made enormous gains in educational attainment and labor force involvement in the last several decades—gains which have helped close the wage gap over time—unequal pay remains pervasive. Below are some of the reasons why.

Women are paid less for the same work.

  • Numerous research studies show that compared to men, women are less likely to be hired, particularly for high-wage jobs, or are likely to be offered lower salaries. For example, a recent experiment revealed that when presented with identical resumes, one with the name John and one with the name Jennifer, science professors offered the male applicant for a lab manager position a salary of nearly $4,000 more, additional career mentoring, and judged him to be significantly more competent and hirable.
    Recent research reveals that even controlling for race, region, unionization status, education, work experience, occupation, and industry leaves 38 percent of the pay gap “unexplained.” Discrimination is thought to be a major cause of this unexplained gap.

Women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs and underrepresented in high-wage ones.

  • In 2016, women made up nearly two-thirds of the 24 million workers in low-wage jobs that typically pay less than $11.50 per hour. They disproportionately hold low-wage jobs like personal care aides, home health aides, and fast food workers.
  • Conversely, women are underrepresented in higher wage occupations. This underrepresentation is due in part to the fact that women are discouraged from entering better paying fields, such as STEM. Sometimes this discouragement is subtle, but other times it is very overt, in the form of harassment and other forms of discrimination.

Women’s work is devalued because women do it.

  • “Women’s” jobs often pay less precisely because women do them. A study of more than 50 years of data revealed that when women moved into a field in large numbers, wages declined, even when controlling for experience, skills, education, race and region.

Caregivers are discriminated against and face barriers that result in lower pay.

  • Mothers are paid less than fathers and the motherhood wage penalty, which grows by an estimated seven percent for each child, is larger for low-wage workers.
  • Employers’ negative stereotypes about mothers harm mothers’ job and salary prospects. In comparing equally qualified women candidates, one study revealed that mothers were recommended for significantly lower starting salaries, perceived as less competent, and less likely to be recommended for hire than non-mothers. The effects for fathers were just the opposite—fathers were recommended for significantly higher pay and were perceived as more committed to their jobs than men without children.
  • Mothers’ wages are also affected by a lack of support for women’s disproportionate caregiving responsibilities. The high cost of child care and a lack of paid leave make it less likely that women with caregiving responsibilities are able to stay in the workforce. This time out of work negatively impacts mothers’ wages, though policies like paid leave make it more likely that women will continue to work after having children, strengthening their connection to the workforce.
  • Relatedly, increased access to contraception is one reason the gender wage gap closed in the last few decades of the 20th century. This access allowed women to control their fertility so that they could invest in education and increase their representation in non-traditional occupations, resulting in higher wages.

Women in unions experience smaller wage gaps—but rates of unionization are low.

  • Less than 11 percent of the workforce belongs to a union, but those women who are members of unions experience greater wage equality. Female union members make 88 cents for every dollar paid to male union members, compared to female non-union members who make only 82 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. Wages for women who are members of unions, especially white and Latina women, are higher than those of their female counterparts who are not represented by unions.
  • Unions not only bargain for higher wages, they reduce inequality by increasing pay transparency. For example, a recent analysis by a journalists’ union of their wage data revealed pervasive pay inequality in the industry, prompting a promise of immediate action by at least one national newspaper.

What We Need To Do To Achieve Equal Pay

In order to finally achieve equal pay we need to:

  • Strengthen our equal pay laws so that women are better able to fight back against pay discrimination.
  • Build ladders to better paying jobs for women by removing barriers to entry into male-dominated fields.
  • Lift up the wages of women in low-wage jobs by raising the minimum wage and ensuring that tipped workers receive at least the regular minimum wage before tips.
  • Increase the availability of high-quality, affordable child care.
  • Help prevent and remedy caregiver discrimination and protect workers from pregnancy discrimination.
  • Establish fair scheduling practices that allow employees to meet their caregiving responsibilities and other obligations.
  • Provide paid family and medical leave.
  • Ensure women’s access to the affordable reproductive health care they need.
  • Protect workers’ ability to collectively bargain.

Every Woman Matters. Every Dollar Matters. Equal Pay Matters.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.