While the gender wage gap steadily closed between the 1960s and the 1990s, in recent years progress has slowed to a crawl. As a recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) notes, “The gender wage gap in the United States has not seen significant improvement in recent years.”
Last year, women working full-time made 82.1 percent each week of what men made at the median, which was an increase of about a percentage point over 2012 but lower than in 2011. Yearly earnings show the same trend: women working full-time, year-round made 76.5 percent of what men made in 2012, the most recent data, the same as in 2004. The gender wage gap has only closed by 1.7 percentage points over the last decade, compared to 3.1 points the decade before and 9.7 the decade before that.
The reason progress has slowed, IWPR President Heidi Hartmann says, is because women aren’t making gains in earning more. “The gender wage gap closed from 40 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2012,” she writes. And during that time, women’s wages also grew, adjusted for inflation, from $22,418 a year in 1960 to $38,345 in 2012. In the 1960s and 1970s, she writes, women made progress by breaking down barriers. “By increasing their human capital and gaining access to new, better paid occupations, firms, and industries, women were able to achieve a significant degree of equality with men, despite trends pushing the top and the bottom further apart.”
But that masks the fact that there has been “a virtual standstill in women’s real wages for the past ten years,” she notes. Women made $38,438 in 2012, which is actually slightly less, adjusted for inflation, than in 2001. Their weekly earnings are also failing to increase: women made $706 a week in 2013, about the same in 2004. They are being impacted by a trend that was occurring for men that whole time: men’s earnings haven’t grown since about 1975 (even though they have always made more than women). Now it seems women are stuck in the same gear. “This is not to say that discrimination is any worse than it has been in the past,” Hartmann writes, “but progress in reducing discrimination is no longer being made.”
On the current trajectory, IWPR estimates that women and men won’t make the same money until 2058. To significantly speed up that progress, Hartmann says it will take “a major policy shift.”
One measure that could have a big impact is raising the minimum wage. The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers estimates that raising the wage to $10.10 an hour and indexing it to inflation would close about 5 percent of the gender wage gap, and states with higher wages tend to have smaller gaps.
Helping workers organize could also help close the gap. Women who belong to a union make more than 90 percent of what men do, and the gap among unionized workers is actually shrinking, declining by 2.6 cents between 2012 and 2013.
Offering more affordable child care and mandating paid family leave would also go a long way to increasing women’s earnings. A little more than 10 percent of the wage gap can be attributed to the fact that women tend to spend less time in the labor force than men, often because they have to interrupt their careers for children or to care for other family members. But mothers who have access to regular childcare are twice as likely to stay in their jobs than those without. Women who get paid family leave also tend to see their wages increase when they go back to work than those who don’t get paid time off.
And simply giving women more information could also help. About half of today’s workers are either prohibited or discouraged from talking about their pay with colleagues, making it hard for women to find out whether they’re being paid fairly. Congress could pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would ban this practice, and President Obama could take a step on his own by issuing an executive order to ban federal contractors from doing the same, changing the environment for 22 percent of the workforce.