Equal Pay for Equal Work: Why the Gender Pay Gap is Alive and Well in America

What causes the pay gap between men and women? Average women’s pay has been sitting at a depressing 77% of men’s, and without good answers, we will not know where to look for solutions (at least, for solutions better than "binders full of women"). 

Some have argued that discrimination does not play a major role in generating the pay gap; instead, it is chalked up to the individual choices that women make – including college major and career choices, especially emphasizing family and childcare choices. While these factors do play an important role, they are not the whole story – as the increasing number of claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would suggest.

A new study from the American Association of University Women chose to look at young people one year out of college, the majority of who do not have families or children, to eliminate the influence of family choices on salary (although they would be the first to point out that these choices may arise from unequal societal expectations). 

Their findings show that “occupation, hours worked, and economic sector help us understand the pay gap, but these differences do not fully explain it,” suggesting that discrimination does influence salary – and that better policies are needed to address this inequity. After controlling for these various measurable causes of the pay gap, they showed that on average, two college graduates identical in every way but gender – major, career, hours worked, etc. – would still have a 7% pay gap on average.

This unexplained portion of the pay gap is just that – technically unexplained. But we can hazard some pretty good guesses as to its causes. Likely, a substantial portion of this gap is attributable to discrimination. There are other possibilities, such as a difference between the genders in willingness to negotiate for a higher salary. 

However, many studies have shown that real gender biases do exist against women in the workplace; the AAUW points out several, including a study in which “science faculty members from research-intensive universities selected a higher starting salary for male applicants than they did for identically qualified female applicants for a laboratory manager position.”

So what should we do about this pay gap? The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, although laudable, simply returned the statue of limitations for lawsuits over equal pay to what it had been before the Supreme Court 2007 Ledbetter v. Goodyear decisions. Instead of leaving the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to be undermined by the courts, we need new legislation to buttress it. The Paycheck Fairness Act, rejected twice by Congress, would have done so. But we also need creative legislation that addresses this inequality from the multitude of angles that give rise to it.

The pay gap is a multidimensional problem with a multitude of solutions, including the oft-discussed family leave and salary transparency policies, but also including many other angles. About two-thirds of minimum-wage earners are women, for example, so perhaps the minimum wage should be increased. Student loan debt disproportionately burdens women, affecting later careers, according to the AAUW report, so Pell grants and loan relief programs should be strengthened. Unionization, childcare, good information about private student loans – these are all angles that affect the pay gap. Tackling it will require creativity and persistence, but can and will be done.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Patricia Levi

A California native, Patricia recently graduated Harvard and is still working there on atmospheric modeling of GHGs. The rest of the time, she loves to cook, go outside, and read up on the latest in environmental, energy, and political news.

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