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Shining a Light on the Wage Gap

HHFifty years after the Equal Pay Act, employment discrimination persists but is harder to see.

By Dr. Heidi Hartmann

When the Equal Pay Act (EPA) was passed 50 years ago, discrimination was, in many ways, openly accepted in the workplace and women were expected to earn less than men in the same jobs. The EPA signed by President John F. Kennedy on June 10, 1963, helped to reduce this type of blatant employment discrimination, but it is still present and the wage gap persists.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) was founded 25 years ago, at the end of the 1980s, the decade which saw the most sustained narrowing of the gender wage gap since passage of the EPA. Between 1981 and 1990, the gender wage gap closed by more than ten percentage points. In the most recent decade, progress has stalled and the gap narrowed by no more than one percentage point.

There is no single cause for the pay gap. Jobs dominated by women pay less than jobs dominated by men. Over their lifetimes, women still take off more time from paid work for family care than men. Women also still face subtle—and not so subtle—discrimination when they do the similar work to men. Direct discrimination is still estimated to account for between one quarter and 40 percent of the wage gap, according to several reviews of social science research.

Employers can no longer advertise jobs at different rates for men and women. But paying women less for similar performance, giving women less access to career-enhancing opportunities, and making it harder for women to get promoted are practices that continue to hinder progress towards equal pay.

Tackling those types of employment discrimination is surprisingly difficult because employees may still be fired simply for discussing their earnings with a colleague or coworker. In an age when information sharing has become widespread and hearing about a major life event over social networking is not uncommon, exchanging pay information remains frowned upon by many employers. Pay secrecy allows disparities, discrimination, and unequal pay to hide under the rug.

President Kennedy hands out pens at the White House signing of the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963.  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

President John F. Kennedy hands out pens at the White House signing of the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

According to an IWPR/Rockefeller survey, half of all workers (51 percent of women and 47 percent of men) report that the discussion of wage and salary information is either discouraged or prohibited and/or could lead to punishment. The Equal Pay Act does not protect workers against retaliation for sharing salary information with their co-workers. In the public sector, where pay information is publicly available, a smaller pay gap exists compared to the private sector.

The 2009 Lily Ledbetter Act provides that every paycheck that pays a woman less than a male colleague for equal or similar work can be challenged in court, but the act did not address pay secrecy. Ledbetter worked for a company that prohibited the discussion of one’s salary. After 18 years on the job, Ledbetter sued when, in an anonymous note from a coworker, she received evidence that she was being paid unfairly. The Paycheck Fairness Act was introduced in the last Congress, but failed to pass to a vote in the Senate. This bill would have protected workers against retaliation for sharing pay information.

Women don’t have the time to wait to earn the same as men because their families need the money now. According to the most recent estimate from IWPR, however, the wage gap is not expected to close until 2057. Many women working today will never see equal pay, harming their long-term earnings and leaving them with lower retirement income.

In an age where women in the United States are almost half the workforce, are more likely to gain higher levels of education than men, and increasingly are the main or co-breadwinner in families, we cannot wait for another 44 years for the gender wage gap to be finally relegated to the history books.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann is President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 

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