Today, April 9th, is ‘celebrated’ as Pay Equity Day as it marks the number of extra days into 2013 that the average woman must work in order to earn as much as the average man earned in 2012. Naysayers argue that women earn less than men because of the “choices” they make in their lives — choosing to work in less lucrative careers, to work less hours, and to take more time out of the paid labor force to stay home with children or care for elderly relatives. But there is a preponderance of evidence indicating that something more complicated is happening than just women voluntarily self-selecting into lower paying careers.
Women on average make only 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. Some of that wage gap is the result of women being more likely to work in certain industries or occupations, but about 40 percent of the difference in men’s and women’s wages cannot be explained by any measurable factor. And the wage gap is even higher for women of color, pointing to social factors that go far beyond the choices that women make.
The truth is, the choices women (and men) make do not occur in a vacuum. The fastest growing sectors of the economy are female dominated, but they are also jobs with low wages and large gender wage gaps. These are the occupations that are adding the most new jobs, so one can hardly blame women for taking them — especially as our economy continues to slowly recover. And while it is true that some women choose to take time out of the workforce to care for children or other relatives, the preexisting wage gap is often the reason they do so. In a married couple it often makes the most economic sense for the parent with the lower salary to be the one to take time off, and if a woman’s wages barely (or do not) cover the extremely high costs of childcare it make not make economic sense for her to keep working. But taking time away from work lowers wages in the long run and helps some employers justify discriminating against women workers in terms of pay and promotions, contributing to the vicious cycle that is the gender wage gap.
Unfortunately, regardless of what some would like the public to believe, the gender wage gap is real and has significant impacts on women’s lives in both the short and the long term. Even women who “do everything right” still feel the impact in the end. While the wage gap is not as large as it once was, progress has stalled in recent years. Legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would protect workers who discuss their salaries and impose greater sanctions against employers who discriminate, and policies to provide paid family and medical leave and expand access to preschool and childcare would go a long way to help rectify this inequity.