Illustration by Baz Pugmire of a woman looking through a glass ceiling, experiencing the wage gap

The Continued Existence of the Wage Gap Is Still Critically Important

We've known about the gendered difference in pay for decades, but little has been fixed. With a new work environment ahead, now is the time to make changes.
July 20, 2020
11 mins read

Today, the overall gender wage gap sits at about 82 cents. That means for every dollar a man makes in America, a woman doing the same work receives 82 cents. It gets more complicated.

Take a moment to imagine the following scenario: Jane Doe is a white woman living in the United States, and a recent college graduate. In January of 2020, she begins an entry-level position at a new company, alongside five new coworkers: a Black woman, a Latinx woman, an Asian woman, a Native American woman and a white man. Jane and her five coworkers all do the same work and are all new to the field.

By the time the calendar year finishes, her male co-worker (let’s call him John) will have received his final paycheck — and studies show it’ll be larger than Jane’s. In fact, Jane will have to work until March 31 of the next year to gain the same amount of wages John will have made in just one year.

Jane’s coworker, an Asian American, will have to work until Feb. 11. Jane’s Black coworker will work until Aug. 13 to receive compensation equal to John’s. Her Native American coworker will have to work until Oct. 1. Her Latinx coworker will round out the group, working until Oct. 29 to receive the appropriate wages for the same work and performance as John’s. Though the overall wage gap continues to narrow, identity-based differences in wages — such as those between Jane and her female co-workers — remain stagnant.

These identity-based cleavages can have devastating consequences for women’s participation in the financial world. While an 18-cent difference may not seem like a lot of money, the effects of each loss cumulatively impact women (and particularly, BIWOC) in increasingly harmful ways. According to CNBC statistics, a Latinx woman will on average lose about $1 million over her lifetime. The magnitude of this “lost” money grows in strength as other identities are taken into account.

For immigrant women, formerly incarcerated women and trans women, these numbers might balloon even further. Losses among these women can total about a third of the lifetime income they’re owed. These same groups, who are also most at risk for gender or identity-based violence, poverty and homelessness, are structurally deprived of financial stability on the part of their employers, year after year.

Unfortunately, this isn’t news to most. The gender pay gap has been openly discussed for decades. So, why haven’t things changed? Why do people still refuse to accept its existence?

The conditioned response of a gender-wage-gap-denier usually has to do with either womens’ education (or alleged lack thereof), negotiation tactics or oft-cited ability to bear children. None of these explanations provide any rational or factual justification of the wage gap.

Women’s Education

According to the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 7), pay disparities are exclusively products of intentional discrimination or the “lingering effects of past discrimination.” Even when accounting for educational differences, occupation, union status, industry and more, pay discrepancies remain unexplained. This is not only a clear sign of discrimination, but also a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

According to numerous studies, within categories of gender and race, wage gaps still exist for women with numerous post-graduate degrees. The same studies show that women who hold higher-paying jobs, predicated on specialized skills and degrees, actually face a greater magnitude of loss as a result of the wage gap.

It’s not that women aren’t getting educated at the same rates or to the same degree as their male counterparts. Remember Jane and John? Even if they both had law degrees, Jane might have to work well into April to earn the same paycheck. In truth, no matter how much education a woman does get, she is consistently undervalued and grossly underpaid.

Negotiation Tactics

The New York Times reports that women ask for raises as often as men. This undermines any claim that women are simply worse at negotiating for better pay. Self-advocacy is an important part of establishing workplace boundaries on an individual level, but a difference in the number of women who don’t ask for raises is not large enough to justify differences in salary.

Additionally, women are more likely to be perceived as “demanding” rather than “asking” for a raise. The same ask generates respect among male management and male employees, but animosity for so-called “difficult” women.

Bearing Children

Some choose to justify the wage gap by pointing out that many women give birth while employed, citing that the labor loss during maternity leave offsets any discrepancies between men and women. There are numerous reasons why this kind of sentiment is generally nonsensical (not to mention, wildly insulting). Even in their first year out of college, women who do not have children earn 93% of what their male peers do, controlling for employment positions and college grade point averages.

Childbirth also doesn’t lend any statistical explanation as to the gender wage gaps along divisions of race, class, LGBTQIA identity or disability status. Finally, rather than accusing women of falling short on their work responsibilities by rearing their children, ask instead what employers (and fathers) can and should be doing to ease the burden.

Why Now?

It’s clear that the gender pay gap is very real, and it’s a problem that won’t go away without direct, sustained action. But amidst the other troubling (and equally pressing) justice-based issues of the day, why is this fight necessary in this moment?

The world has begun to adjust to this “new normal.” With coronavirus cases once again on the rise in the United States, the realities of living with the pandemic might continue long past what many once hoped for. Regardless, the landscape of work and employment has been irrevocably changed.

With greater emphasis placed on tools like Zoom and Slack, companies are finding that employees are poised to do great work even on a remote-only basis. Twitter and Facebook have already announced that employees will be able to work remotely even after the pandemic subsides, and it is assumed other corporations will follow suit. Even if full-time remote work is not an option, two-thirds of managers say their work will be increasingly remote in the future.

Though this kind of flexibility is admirable, it may not be all that it seems. Unless real adjustments are made to normalize working in alternative ways, it is clear that in-person employees will be prioritized across the board. For women, this could have potentially dire consequences that further widen gender pay gaps.

The Current Situation

Evidence from early office re-openings around the country confirm these ideas. Studies show that remote work has neither positively affected the gender pay gap nor lifted women into higher-paying positions. Even now, the choice between working from home or heading into the office remains a highly gendered one.

By and large, women (particularly those in heterosexual arrangements) are the primary caretakers of children. It is not difficult to guess which parent would be more likely to stay home and take care of children in the event of continued school and day-care closures, and which would be able to commute to work once again.

Flexible policies aside, managers and employees are unlikely to treat these employees the same way —remote workers will have less of a chance to communicate casually with co-workers and managers, establish rapport and jump onto new opportunities. Women will undoubtedly be left behind.

While this is largely a prediction, it is anything but conjecture. Evidence shows that women and men who decide to work from home are viewed differently, even when their request for flexible arrangements have similar bases.

Employers are actually more likely to allow high-level male employees a flexible schedule, as it is assumed they want to use remote work to advance their careers. Women of similar rank are unlikely to be given this privilege for any reason. Regardless of the truth of the request, employers tend to assume that women want alternative working conditions to take care of children. Women are punished for this assumption, financially and otherwise.

The wage gap and the subsequent loss of women’s financial stability in America is only going to be exacerbated by this crisis. BIWOC, disabled women, trans women, formerly incarcerated women and immigrant women alike will be forced to reconcile their default duties as caretakers with an increasingly out-of-touch work environment — one that relies on their labor as mothers and as employees with little understanding, compassion or flexibility.

Moving Forward

There is, fortunately, a path to narrowing the pervasive gap.

First and foremost, we must recognize not only its existence, but also the ways in which corporate culture upholds and perpetuates gendered bias. It’s important to individually acknowledge pay discrepancies and talk about them without fear or shame. The most powerful tool in any woman’s arsenal is her voice. Ask male coworkers about their salaries and demand the same. Encourage women in power to open doors for those behind her, making a sincere effort to uplift Black, AAPI, Indigenous and Latinx colleagues.

There is also collective work to be done. The Paycheck Fairness Act is currently on the Senate’s legislative calendar. With public pressure, there’s a chance it can be passed. Though the Equal Pay Act does exist, the newly-minted Paycheck Fairness Act aims to close the loopholes that have allowed employers to perpetuate discriminatory wage differences. With President Trump halting the data-gathering of gender pay gap statistics by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the legality of the gender wage gap has never been more murky.

The gender pay gap goes far beyond those 82 cents. It’s a continued, structural, discriminatory effort aimed at disenfranchising women across all identities. Full participation in the economy maintains a huge role in globally empowering women, and in the U.S., this participation is continually threatened. In these COVID-addled times, it’s more important than ever to quit chasing the bag and start demanding what we’re owed.

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