Understanding the Gender Pay Gap and How It Affects Women

Facts, Figures, and Commentary

An image of a man standing on a larger pile of money than a woman symbolizes the gender pay gap.
Diane Labombarbe/Digital Vision Vectors/Getty IMages

In April 2014 the Paycheck Fairness Act was voted down in the Senate by Republicans. The bill, first approved by the House of Representatives in 2009, is considered by proponents to be an extension of the 1963 Equal Pay Act and is meant to address the gap in pay between women and men that has persisted despite the 1963 legislation. The Paycheck Fairness Act would allow for the punishment of employers who retaliate against workers for sharing information about pay, puts the burden of justifying gendered wage discrepancies on employers, and gives workers the right to sue for damages if they suffer discrimination.

In a memo released on April 5, 2014, the Republican National Committee argued that it opposes the bill because it is already illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender and because it duplicates the Equal Pay Act. The memo also stated that the national pay gap between men and women is merely the result of women working in lower paying fields: “The difference isn’t because of their genders; it’s because of their jobs.”

This spurious claim flies in the face of a litany of published empirical research that demonstrates that the gender pay gap is real and that it exists within—not simply across—occupational categories. In fact, federal data shows that it is greatest among the highest paying sectors.

The Gender Pay Gap Defined

What exactly is the gender pay gap? Simply put, it’s the hard reality that women, within the United States and around the world, earn only a portion of what men earn for doing the same jobs.

The gap exists as a universal between the genders, and it exists within the vast majority of occupations.

The gender pay gap can be measured in three key ways: by hourly earnings, weekly earnings, and annual income. In all cases, researchers compare median earnings for women versus men. The most recent data, compiled by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and published in a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), show a 23 cent pay gap in weekly earnings for full-time workers on the basis of gender.

That means that, overall, women make just 77 cents to the man’s dollar. Women of color, with the exception of Asian Americans, fare far worse than white women in this regard, as the gender pay gap is exacerbated by racism, past and present.

The Pew Research Center reported in 2013 that the hourly earnings pay gap, 16 cents, is smaller than the weekly earnings gap. According to Pew, this calculation vanishes the portion of the gap that exists due to gender disparity in hours worked, which is produced by the fact that women are more likely to work part-time than are men.

Using federal data from 2007, Dr. Mariko Lin Chang documented a gendered annual income gap that ranged from zero for never-married women and men, to 13 percent for divorced women, 27 percent for widowed women, and 28 percent for married women. Importantly, Dr. Chang emphasized that the absence of a gendered income gap for never married women masks a gendered wealth gap that crosses all income categories.

This collection of rigorous and undisputed social science demonstrates that a gender gap exists when measured by hourly wages, weekly earnings, annual income, and wealth. This is very bad news for women and those who depend on them.

Debunking the Debunkers

Those seeking to “debunk” the gender pay gap suggest that it is a result of differing levels of education, or of life choices one might make. However, the fact that a weekly earnings gap exists between women and men just one year out of college—7 percent—demonstrates that it cannot be blamed on the “life choices” of being pregnant, birthing a child, or reducing work in order to care for children or other family members. As far as education, per the AAUW report, the maddening truth is that the pay gap between men and women actually widens as educational attainment increases. For women, a Masters or professional degree is simply not worth as much as a man’s.

The Sociology of the Gender Pay Gap

Why do gendered gaps in pay and wealth exist? Simply put, they are the product of historically rooted gender biases that still thrive today.

Though many Americans would claim otherwise, these data clearly show that the vast majority of us, regardless of gender, view men’s labor as more valuable than women’s. This often unconscious or subconscious assessment of labor value is influenced strongly by biased perceptions of individual qualities thought to be determined by gender. These often break down as gendered binaries that directly favor men, like the idea that men are strong and women are weak, that men are rational while women are emotional, or that men are leaders and women are followers. These sorts of gender biases even appear in how people describe inanimate objects, depending on whether they are classified as masculine or feminine in their native language.

Studies that examine gender discrimination in the evaluation of student performance and in hiring, professor interest in mentoring students, even in the wording of job listings, have demonstrated a clear gender bias that unjustly favors men.

Certainly, legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act would help make visible, and thus challenge, the gender pay gap by providing legal channels for addressing this form of everyday discrimination. But if we really want to eliminate it, we as a society have to do the collective work of unlearning the gender biases that live deep within each of us. We can begin this work in our everyday lives by challenging assumptions based on gender made both by ourselves and those around us.