We must just expect less of women. That’s really the only logical explanation for the historical persistence of the gender wage gap, despite women’s marked progress on social and legal equality. The “79-cents-on-the-dollar” figure remains infamously stubborn, but whether this is due to interpersonal bias, cultural perception, or economic oppression, the system just always seems rigged to leave women trailing behind.
That sticky 20 percent wage gap has plateaued over the past decade. Since the early 1990s, in fact, it has only narrowed by about a dime on the dollar (ticking up from about 70 cents to 80 cents for each dollar men earn). At this rate, the gender wage gap will outlive the current generation of working women before the disparities even out, around 2059. There are even signs that the gap is widening. According to Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), “Controlling for inflation, women’s earnings increased by 0.9 percent, while men’s earnings increased by 2.6 percent since 2014.” In other words, the economy’s post-recession rebound has buoyed men up at the expense of a widening gender divide.
The yearly wage gap between men and women amounts to an estimated $10,762 per worker (nearly $500 billion nationwide). This is roughly equal to a year of daycare services for a single mother in Pennsylvania. And about one-third of the average student-debt load she would leave college with.
But some women are less equal than others: The 20-cent gap between genders is comparable to the 20-cent gap between black women’s and white women’s wages. And while Latinos and blacks generally earn less than whites or Asians earn, the gender wage gap is smaller within their respective populations. So among poorer racial groups, the gender gap, ironically, narrows at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.
Bias plays out subtly in a workplace—getting repeatedly passed over for a promotion, being denied time off to care for a sick child, or being ordered to stay home the day you tell your boss you’re pregnant. However, discrimination in the workplace is often not interpersonal but systemic. Even the statistics reflect societal gender bias; the wage gap would likely be larger if part-time and irregular workers were also counted, says IWPR, “as women are more likely than men to work reduced schedules, often in order to manage childrearing and other caregiving work”—a social constraint that both reflects and reinforces barriers to women’s opportunity.