April 14, 2015 is an important date for the progression of women in the workforce, if not a particularly joyous occasion. This date symbolizes the number of days that the average female employee must work to earn what her male colleagues earned in the last calendar year. That means that women must work over three months longer in order to bring home the paycheck amount that their male counterparts saw at the end of last year.
Women have certainly made progress in the workforce. President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in 1963, which states that men and women must be paid equal wages if they perform the same work. Yet 52 years later women are earning only 78 cents for every dollar a man earns. That number tumbles even lower for women of color with African American women earning 64 percent of what white men earn. Latinas earn 56 percent.
By the age of 65, the average women will have lost more than $431,000 over her working lifetime as a result of the earnings gap.
In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law which overturned the 180-day statute of limitations for women to contest pay discrimination. Several Members of Congress are now pushing for the Paycheck Fairness Act to be passed into law, which would require employers to show that pay disparity is based on job-performance and not gender. It also would prohibit employer retaliation for sharing salary information with coworkers.
The reasons for pay inequity are complex, yet much of the blame is laid at women’s feet, for individual decisions they make, rather than systemic barriers that need to be addressed and eradicated. Some of these “choices” include:
- Selecting low-paying careers: The majors in college that are historically filled with women eager to change the world like social work, nursing, and teaching may not be known to create many millionaires. Yet studies have shown that the wage gap occurs at all education levels and in nearly every field. Further, we have to question if these female-dominated careers pay less because women’s work isn’t as valued as the occupations chosen by men. Further, we know that when men do choose to go into one of these professions, they often ride the glass elevator quickly to the top—becoming managers, administrators, and supervisors.
- Caring for others: It was recently shown that women are punished when they become mothers, yet men are revered when they become fathers. Mothers are less likely to be hired, perceived as competent, or paid as much as men with the same qualifications. Meanwhile, when men become fathers they are more likely to be hired and even earn more. Women are also becoming sandwiched between children and parents—taking time off from work to care for several generations of their families.
- Negotiating poorly (or not at all): Studies have shown that women do not typically negotiate their salaries in the same manner that men do. However, we’ve also learned that women can be penalized for exhibiting traditional masculine traits like extreme confidence, assertiveness, and dominance. The tricks that men use to talk their way into a higher pay grade often backfire on women.
- Choosing to “lean out:” The lean in movement was inspirational in many ways and helpful to many women, but for a large segment of the female population it simply wasn’t reality. Many women don’t have a choice to lean in to a fulfilling career where they are the masters of their destiny. Many single mothers, low-wage workers, immigrants, and women who are living paycheck to paycheck simply don’t have time to advocate for higher wages. Leaning in is a luxury.
The AAUW found that after accounting for college major, occupation, economic sector, hours worked, months unemployed since graduation, GPA, type of undergraduate institution, institution selectivity, age, geographical region, and marital status, there is still a seven percent difference in the earnings of male and female college graduates one year after graduation. Ten years later that unexplained gap widens to 12 percent.
Regardless of the reasons, with women comprising 47 percent of the American workforce, this inequity is untenable. And it’s not just take home pay but reduced pensions and diminished Social Security benefits at stake. Further, families increasingly depend on a woman’s wages. The United States has been at the forefront of civil rights including women’s rights and it’s an embarrassment to showcase to the world that we think women are only 78 percent as smart, talented, and hard-working as men.