Tuesday is Equal Pay Day, the point in the year when women’s earnings finally catch up to what men made last year. According to a new report from the National Partnership for Women & Families, the wage gap is holding steady at 21 cents, meaning that women make 79 cents for every dollar men earn—or, in the parlance of Equal Pay Day, women would have to work the equivalent of three and a half months extra every year just to earn the same amount.
The NPWF estimates that the wage gap keeps U.S. women from earning a total of $500 billion per year. Women in Louisiana have it worst (a 35 cent gap) while women in D.C. get the best deal (a 10 cent gap. Some of the gap is attributable to women working fewer hours than men, or taking jobs in lower-paying sectors. But the reasons why women work fewer hours and lower-paying jobs often lead back to unequal caregiving responsibilities and gendered socialization that funnels women into certain career paths.
And a wide gap still remains even when researchers control for location, hours worked, and varying roles. Across industries and education levels, women are paid less for doing the same work. A 2011 study found that just-minted female physicians start with salaries $16,819 lower than their male peers. Another recent study logged a 20 percent gender wage gap for executives with MBAs. The average woman with a graduate degree earns an annual $5,000 less than the average man with a bachelor’s degree.
Some have said that women get paid less in part because they don’t negotiate their salaries as often or as aggressively as men. This is especially true for a woman’s first salaried job, which sets the starting point and trajectory for her future pay. But, as with many elements of gender discrimination, salary negotiations put women in a double bind. If they do negotiate, they face far more negative backlash than men, and a recent study found that women often make the right choice by holding back from a negotiation. Pay inequity compounds with other harmful effects of discrimination—for women of color, this means far wider wage gap—throughout a woman’s life, making retirement an even more daunting prospect. Among U.S. residents over the age of 75, women are nearly twice as likely as men to live in poverty.
In recent months, it’s felt like every day is equal pay day. The issue has gotten a signal boost from the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which is suing U.S. Soccer for egregious wage discrimination, and the White House, which introduced a rule in January that will require companies that employ 100 or more workers to report annual data on employee compensation to assist federal wage discrimination investigations.
The added attention has dovetailed with new efforts to position wage equity as an important issue not just for women, but for the health of our country. A new paper from the Joint Economic Committee of Congress estimates that the U.S. economy can attribute $2 trillion in growth to women’s increased participation in the workforce since the 1970s. Earlier this month, the McKinsey Global Institute reported that, if the U.S. achieved full gender equity, it could add up to $4.3 trillion to the economy by 2025. That’s a lofty goal that would require a complete overhaul of the very building blocks of a patriarchal society, but even incremental improvements would make a tangible impact on women’s lives and the U.S. economy. The Economic Policy Institute just released a report detailing how a nationwide investment in child care could increase women’s participation in the workforce and help diminish the gender wage gap. It’s no panacea, but on this Equal Pay Day, an achievable policy goal is something to celebrate.