Why Has the Gender Wage Gap Remained Stagnant for Two Decades?

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Women have historically earned less than men, and the gap in earnings between the two genders has barely budged over the past 20 years. A recent Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of both full- and part-time workers found that in 2022 women earned an average of 82% of what men earned — a very similar percentage to the 2002 results, when women earned 80% of what men earned.

So why is the gender wage gap not closing? And what can women (and men) do to help close the gap? Here’s what the experts say.

Why the Gender Wage Gap Keeps Persisting

There are a few factors that have led to a stagnant gender wage gap, said Delia Coleman, deputy director of Equal Rights Advocates.

“One major factor is simply ignoring or not measuring the problem,” she said. “Workplaces that don’t analyze salary discrepancies across all employees and do not dedicate the proper resources to address the discrepancies are bound to have pay gaps. We can’t fix what we can’t see.”

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A lack of pay transparency also adds to the issue.

“Pay secrecy keeps workers in the dark about pay disparities and prevents them from asking for the wages they deserve,” Coleman said. “Having access to this information is important because it not only makes workers aware of the data, but also gives them a tool to negotiate for better pay. It’s also important that employees feel comfortable discussing their wages with each other. Rules or norms that prohibit the discussion of compensation often create pay gaps.”

Another factor that impacts female workers is pregnancy and caregiving responsibility discrimination, Coleman said.

“In fact, working mothers across race and ethnicity experience a wage gap of approximately 58 cents compared to working fathers,” she said. “This is largely due to inadequate family and medical leave policies and a refusal to accommodate workers with caregiver responsibilities, which can result in mothers being forced to quit their jobs or even being let go. And, when working mothers try to re-enter the workforce, they’re often the last rehired. We call this part of the motherhood penalty.”

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Occupational segregation is another factor contributing to the gender wage gap.

“Women and people of color are overrepresented in lower-paying roles and industries because their work is not valued as highly,” Coleman said. “These kinds of roles are often subject to unfair labor practices like wage theft, which exacerbates the problem.”

What Can Women Do To Ensure They Are Being Paid Fairly?

The best thing women can do to ensure they are being paid fairly is to research the salary range for their position, both within their company and the market at large, said Ritu Bhasin, DEI and empowerment expert and author of “We’ve Got This: Unlocking the Beauty of Belonging.”

Once you’ve done your research, set up a meeting with your employer if you find that you are being underpaid.

“Make sure that you’re very clear and direct,” she said. “List out all of the reasons why you think you deserve to be paid more and refer back to the research you conducted.”

Overall, however, the responsibility to ensure you are being paid fairly is held by the employer, Coleman said.

“We need forward-thinking employers to finally put into practice the policies and practices we all know will make a serious dent in wage inequity,” she said.

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What Needs To Happen To Close the Wage Gap

While women and employers certainly can do their individual parts to help close the wage gap, there will need to be some larger societal changes to truly narrow — and hopefully eliminate — the gap.

“Some larger changes we need to see to achieve pay parity include improving equal pay laws, ensuring a living wage for all workers, increasing pay transparency and anti-retaliation laws, and achieving wage equity for mothers and caregivers,” Coleman said.

An increase in the minimum wage is a good place to start, she said.

“Many states follow federal minimum wage law, which allows employers to pay tipped workers a subminimum wage of just $2.13 per hour before tips — and only seven states require employers to pay tipped workers the full minimum wage, before tips,” Coleman said. “This forces many tipped workers, the majority of whom are women, to tolerate customer abuse to make ends meet with tips. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour since 2009, and only 14 states and D.C. have a minimum wage of at least $12 per hour.”

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Ensuring that parents and caretakers don’t face job discrimination and making paid family and medical leave available to all workers also will help close the gender wage gap.

“The lifetime earnings of mothers and other family caregivers decrease when they are pushed out of jobs for any period of time because of discrimination, lack of workplace accommodations or a lack of job-protected and paid family and medical or sick leave,” Coleman said.

She said other measures that can help close the gap include “pay transparency and anti-retaliation policies, including posting salary ranges, protecting workers from retaliation if they discuss compensation with coworkers, and not letting past salary dictate how much someone makes at a new job, which perpetuates gender and race-based pay gaps.”

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