The Gender Wage Gap Is Much Worse Than We Thought — But We Can Close It

See what you didn't know about women getting paid less than men.
  • A new study found the gender wage gap is actually more than double the commonly cited 20-cent difference.
  • Women are more likely to have extended periods of time off and see their earning power drop more than men with similar gaps in their working history.
  • Improved family and medical leave policies and affordable child care could be key to closing this gap.

The oft-cited figure of 80 cents on the dollar for the pay women get compared to men might be woefully underestimating just how bad inequality in salaries really is, according to a new study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The study, which looked at how gender appeared to affect a worker’s earning power over the course of his or her career, found that women could actually be earning as little as 49 cents on the dollar.

Here’s what you should know about the gender pay gap.

Women’s Earning Power Is Repeatedly Penalized

The gender wage gap has been the source of considerable debate and controversy over the years, due in no small part to the complexity and nuance surrounding the issue. The figure of 80 cents on the dollar comes from Census data and compares all men working full time and all women working full time, making it a fairly blunt instrument in understanding the specifics of why men make more. Other econometricians observe that when you compare men and women working the same jobs with the same hours and the same title the gap narrows significantly.

But the new study — written by economists Heidi I. Hartmann and Stephen J. Rose — could indicate that focusing on just present earnings misses some major factors. Most notably, the way that women are much more likely to put their careers on hold to focus on their family or to reduce their responsibilities at work when they have children. That can change these women’s career trajectory and seriously reduce their career earnings by effectively blocking their access to promotions and raises.

The study compared total earnings over a 15-year period to get a better sense of how these differences affect a person’s career, and the results demonstrated that the different expectations about how men and women approach their balance of work and family have a profound impact.

When comparing the long-term effects of gender on earning power, women are earning just 49 cents for every dollar men make. Not only are women more likely to be leaving work for extended periods of time, but the penalty to their wages for that time off is much more pronounced than it is for men with similar gaps in their working history.

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Can The Gender Gap Be Closed?

Although the study exposed a new, gaping gender wage gap, it also found that things have improved significantly over time: For the 15-year period between 1968 and 1982, women earned just 19 cents on the dollar. The study also provided a roadmap of policy changes that would address the wage gap issue.

According to the study’s authors, one of the central issues is “labor force attachment:” Improving the quality of benefits like paid family and medical leave and affordable childcare has proven benefits in helping women keep their career on track even after starting a family. What’s more, men are more likely to share in their duties at home to take advantage of the additional paid time off available.

The study also promoted better enforcement of equal employment opportunity policies and Title IX regulations — which prohibit sex-based discrimination — at universities as a way to help guide more women into high-paying fields.

Read about how one woman used her network to close the pay gap.

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