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.
The United States lags well behind the rest of the industrialized world with its lack of any national paid-leave policy. But over the past year, a spate of new paid family- and medical-leave policies on the state and local level could bring more equity for working women. Advocates have made incremental progress pushing workplace fairness measures that respond to the material inequities disproportionately affecting women, such as as expanding subsidized childcare and reproductive health–care programs, or minimum-wage raises that—while not explicitly aimed at women—tend to benefit women more due to their relatively low wage levels. Such interventions are a key way to directly alleviate the economic damage of the gender gap; studies have shown that paid medical-leave programs, for example, can directly boost earnings over a woman’s career, maintain stable employment, and reduce a family’s dependence on public assistance.
But to deal more holistically with bias woven deep in the social fabric, Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at National Partnership for Women and Families, says that solutions must tackle inequality in its social, legal, and cultural dimensions. Social-welfare reforms help, she says, but in the long run, “closing the wage gap entirely really will take a change in the public policy landscape on multiple fronts as well as changes in cultural norms and practices.”
One reform that could shift both the politics and culture of the workplace would be institutionalizing transparency on compensation. The Paycheck Fairness Act would prevent bosses from retaliating against workers for discussing wages openly with coworkers and would expand women’s ability to file legal claims for wage discrimination. The bill would also make it easier for workers to file class-action suits to collectively challenge large employers that systematically violate wage laws. The bill addresses the legal barriers exhibited in the landmark Dukes v. Walmart sex-discrimination case, in which the Supreme Court quashed a class action brought by 1.5 million women employees, who claimed that they had continually been paid up to thousands of dollars less annually than male coworkers. Walmart effectively got a pass on industrial-scale wage theft.
Softer forms of discrimination filter through the education system, corporate workplace culture, and media perceptions. And while some attribute occupational segregation among women to individual choice, in reality, gendered social expectations sculpt the structure of opportunity across many sectors.
As Vox reports, a major factor in employment discrimination is the way women are tracked into specific fields, which often pay less well or are perceived as not “real” jobs, such as domestic work. Their low wages are a function not of any inherently lesser value of their labor but rather the lower value society assigns to “women’s work.” A woman may be drawn toward nursing, for instance, in part because she enjoys it, or perhaps it may be the most accessible local job opportunity that pays decently, or her community sees healthcare as a respectable career. And it should be—except that respectability often fails to translate into dignified wages, and the female-dominated nursing profession still carries far less prestige, more stress, and lower pay relative to doctors.
Yet men have a stake in winning that respect as well; gender stereotypes cut both ways. A recent study found that female applicants for part-time jobs were looked upon more favorably than their male peers, due to subconscious perceptions that women are more suited to part-time work, while men seeking the same marginal jobs were seen as underqualified: Sexism, paradoxically, had rendered women excellently qualified for mediocre jobs.
The so-called “glass ceiling” is society’s optical illusion, through which low expectations of women become self-reinforcing. To close the gender gap, women don’t need to break through the glass ceiling; all workers need to level the whole economic hierarchy from below.