Why do women get paid less?

Last year, Governor Mark Dayton signed into law the Women’s Economic Security Act, with the intention of reducing the gender pay gap. Among other things, it requires businesses in the state to certify they provide equal pay to men and women in the same job categories, and protects the jobs of pregnant women on parental leave. Yet while WESA represents significant strides to attaining equal pay in Minnesota, the nation as a whole falls behind, and some say there is more work to be done.

Lenora Lapidus is the women’s rights project director for the American Civil Liberties Union. She writes to MPR:

In 1963 President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act (EPA). At that time, women made, on average, 59 cents for every dollar earned by men. In the fifty-two years since the EPA was passed, the gap has closed by only 19 cents. Today, for every dollar earned by white non-Hispanic men, the average for all women is only 78 cents, for African American women is 64 cents, and for Latinas is 55 cents.

Several factors contribute to the wage gap:

  1. Unequal pay for the same job: Women are paid less than men in nearly every occupation. In a study of 265 major occupations, men’s median salary exceeded women’s in all but one. Economists have documented gender bias in employment decisions through studies showing that women were offered fewer jobs and lower pay than men, even when they had identical resumes.
  2. Job segregation: Sex role stereotypes lead to women being segregated into female-dominated jobs such as retail sales, home health care, and child care. Women remain under-represented in higher paying work traditionally done by men, such as construction, fire-fighting and policing. Currently, two thirds of minimum wage workers and two thirds of workers in tipped occupations are women. And the minimum wage is too low. Nine of the ten states with the largest wage gaps use the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
  3. Retaliation against workers for discussing their pay: A majority of employees are either prohibited or actively discouraged from discussing their pay. Employers with policies preventing employees from sharing pay information keep women in the dark about pay differences, limiting their ability to negotiate for higher pay and to enforce their rights under equal pay laws.
  4. Pay reductions due to pregnancy and caregiving responsibilities: Employers pay women less than men and deny them promotions based on the stereotype that women will have children and then will commit less time and dedication to their jobs. If women do get pregnant or take on caregiving responsibilities, they often lose income because of overt discrimination based on these stereotypes. They also lose pay when they are deprived of opportunities to advance to higher paid jobs or are pushed out of work altogether because employers do not accommodate needs that may arise as a result of pregnancy or caregiving.

There are some clear solutions. The Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill pending in Congress, would give employees legal tools to close the wage gap. The bill would require employers to demonstrate that disparities in pay between men and women result from factors other than sex. It would also prohibit retaliation against employees who inquire about employers’ wage practices or disclose their own pay to colleagues. And the Act would deter discrimination by strengthening the penalties for equal pay violations.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, another bill pending in Congress, would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with limitations caused by pregnancy, just as they provide reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities.  In addition, bills providing for paid family leave and paid sick leave would reduce penalties on workers – both women and men – with family obligations. And raising the minimum wage would increase the salaries of low-income women.

These bills at the federal level – and counterparts at the state level – would go a long way to closing the gender wage gap. Efforts should be taken to enact them swiftly and redress this persistent inequality.

Today’s Question: Why do women get paid less?