Tuesday is Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day by which women supposedly have put in enough extra work to catch up to what men will make in a year. That’s because even when they work full-time, year-round, they still make 77 percent, on average, of what similar men make. But conservatives have recently argued that the pay gap is a myth because various factors like education, job choice, and career paths can explain some of that 23 percent gap. It’s true that the gap represents many factors. Yet even when they are all taken into consideration, here’s why we know there is still an unfair difference between what women and men make:
Women earn less when they get the same education.The first year out of college is the prime time for women and men to make comparable earnings: they are young, childless, and have just as much inexperience as their male counterparts. But women make less than men in their first year after graduating, even when factors such as schools, grades, majors, and others are taken into account. That educational gap will follow them no matter how much more higher learning they invest in: at any educational level, a man with the same degree earns more, on average.
Women earn less in virtually every job.It’s true that women tend to cluster in certain fields and men in others, and the ones women dominate usually pay less. But in virtually every job category tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average woman earns less than the average man. Women only make more in three occupations for which there is adequate data to compare men’s and women’s earnings — they lose out in about 115 others. Even in those low-paid jobs that tend to be dominated by women, such as nurses, teachers, and secretaries, men earn more. And even in male-dominated industries like manufacturing, finance, construction, mining, and agriculture, women earn less.
Women earn less thanks to discrimination.It’s fair to say that not all of the gap is due to discrimination. Certainly women are clustered in low-wage work — they are about two-thirds of the country’s minimum wage workers — and often have to interrupt their careers to care for family members, all of which impacts their earnings. But even when various factors like these are taken into account, the entire gap doesn’t disappear. When the Government Accountability Office last looked at the gap, it couldn’t explain 20 percent of the disparity in pay between men and women, something that could be at least in part caused by discrimination. A more recent study by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn found that while experience, occupation, and industry explain much of the gap, there is still more than 40 percent of it that remains unexplained, the part that could be chalked up to discrimination. We can also look to the real world to see instances where it’s clear that outright discrimination is still at play, such as the details of a recent class action lawsuit against the country’s largest jewelry store, where female employees across the country and with substantial experience say they were still paid less than less qualified men.
Women earn less when they balance children and careers.So what to make of the fact that about 10 percent of the wage gap can be attributed to women having different work histories than men, or in other words, being much more likely to take time off or quit altogether to care for children? Some women will always prefer reducing their schedules or staying at home with their kids. But our country is also unique in making it difficult for both parents to remain in the workforce, a burden that disproportionately falls to women, a good number of whom may not want to leave their jobs. In fact, our growth of women in the labor force has been falling behind other developed countries thanks to our lack of paid family leave and child care assistance. Plus there’s evidence that paid leave and affordable, consistent child care help boost women’s wages. The choice to be a caretaker may not always be such a free choice.