Why Women Still Make Less Than Men in the US

"... death, taxes and the glass ceiling."

Women Rally for Equal Pay
David M. Benett/Getty Images

Despite a sense of continued progress toward gender equality in the workplace, the federal government has confirmed that the workplace earnings gap between men and women still persists today.

According to Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the weekly earnings of full-time working women were about three-fourths of men's during 2001. The report was based on a study of the earnings history of over 9,300 Americans for the last 18 years.

Even accounting for factors such as occupation, industry, race, marital status and job tenure, reports the GAO, working women today earn an average of 80 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. This pay gap has persisted for the past two decades, remaining relatively consistent from 1983-2000.

Key Reasons for the Pay Gap

In attempting to explain the discrepancies in pay between men and women, the GAO concluded:

  • Women in the workforce are also less likely to work a full-time schedule and are more likely to leave the labor force for longer periods of time than men, further suppressing women's wages. These differing work patterns lead to an even larger earnings gap between men and women - suggesting that working women are penalized for their dual roles as wage earners and those who disproportionately care for home and family.
  • Men with children appear to get an earnings boost, whereas women lose earnings. Men with children earn about 2% more on average than men without children, according to the GAO findings, whereas women with children earn about 2.5% less than women without children.
  • Women have fewer years of work experience.

But Other Reasons Remain Unclear

Aside from those key factors, the GAO admitted that it could not fully explain all of the difference in earnings between men and women. “Due to inherent limitations in the survey data and in statistical analysis, we cannot determine whether this remaining difference is due to discrimination or other factors that may affect earnings,” wrote the GAO.

For example, noted the GAO, some women trade higher pay or promotions for jobs that offer flexibility in balancing work and family responsibilities. “In conclusion,” wrote the GAO, “while we were able to account for much of the difference in earnings between men and women, we were not able to explain the remaining earnings differences.”

It's Just a Different World, Lawmaker Says

"The world today is vastly different than it was in 1983, but sadly, one thing that has remained the same is the pay gap between men and women," said U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York, 14th).

"After accounting for so many external factors, it seems that still, at the root of it all, men get an inherent annual bonus just for being men. If this continues, the only guarantees in life will be death, taxes, and the glass ceiling. We can't let that happen."

This GAO study updates a 2002 report it conducted at the request of Rep. Maloney, which examined the glass ceiling for female and male managers. This year's study used data from a more comprehensive, longitudinal study - the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The study also accounted for a slew of external factors for the first time, chief among which were the differences in men's and women's work patterns, including more leave from work to care for their families.