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The Wage Gap: Women Still Make Less Than Men

Women have supported families; entered formerly male-only institutions and workplaces; and demanded better working conditions and pay, facilitated by a growing societal appreciation for gender equality. The insidious undercurrent to this progress, unfortunately, is our nation's persistent wage gap. Women still make less than men.

Data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau show that, on average, a female worker still makes only 77 cents for each dollar earned by a comparable male worker. Indeed, we've seen virtually no progress in closing the gap in the last three years, and the gap has remained stagnant over the last decade. The numbers indicate an even more distressing reality for many American women when race is taken into account: Compared to each dollar earned by the average white male, a white woman makes 77.6 cents, a black woman makes 62.3 cents, and a Hispanic woman makes 54 cents.

These pay disparities stem from an array of employment practices and social expectations that prevent many women from earning as much as a comparable male worker. Although the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ban pay discrimination, the protections provided by these longstanding laws are frustrated in practice.

Pay disparities often go unnoticed because employers either explicitly forbid or actively discourage employees from sharing wage information with each other. And the tools for detecting and addressing pay disparities under the Equal Pay Act have been limited by courts over time. For example, courts have opened loopholes in the defenses that employers are permitted to raise when seeking to justify a decision to not pay workers equal wages for doing substantially equal work. Some courts have said that an employer may justify paying unequal wages even if there is no business reason for paying men and women unequal salaries. And even when women are able to prove discrimination under the Equal Pay Act, the remedies are extremely narrow. Women subjected to sex discrimination currently can receive only backpay under the Equal Pay Act, and damages under the other law that protects against sex-based wage discrimination are set arbitrarily low.

The passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen equal pay legislation by prohibiting employers from retaliating against victims of pay discrimination; by improving remedy provisions to better deter employers who actively engage in pay discrimination and encourage victims of such practices to enforce their rights; and by closing the loopholes in prior equal pay legislation that has allowed gender discrimination in compensation to continue. After passing the House in the last Congress and falling just two votes short of beating a filibuster in the Senate, the bill was introduced in both the House and the Senate this year. After a decade of little movement on the wage gap, Congress must make this bill a priority.

Even if women receive equal pay, however, additional workplace barriers further exacerbate the wage gap:

  • Glass ceiling. Women face a glass ceiling that hinders their advancement to more senior positions that can offer higher pay. A company's promotion policies, a lack of mentoring or support, the prevalence of gender and race stereotypes, and gender-based disparities in educational opportunities are all factors that contribute to the glass ceiling.
  • Discrimination and sexual harassment. Women in workplaces around the nation face gender and race discrimination in hiring and promotions. Additionally, many women deal with harassment that frustrates their entry into and advancement in the workplace, especially in higher-wage, traditionally male occupations.

Furthermore, workplace policies and social expectations often force women to choose between family and work demands, reducing a woman's earnings over time.

Underlying all of this is the sobering observation that the wage gap has a profound effect on women and their families. Until we restructure the laws and policies underlying the wage gap — and address the social expectations that allow gender inequality in the workplace to continue — women and families will suffer from lost wages, and our economy will fail to realize the potential of a capable but still underutilized workforce.

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