Since the second half of the 20th century, women’s labor force participation has grown significantly.1 Women are working longer hours and pursuing higher education in greater numbers. However, despite this progress, significant wage gaps between men and women persist—particularly for women of color. So what exactly is the gender wage gap? What drives it? And what does it mean for women and their families? This fact sheet provides answers to these questions and more.
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What is the gender wage gap?
The gender wage gap refers to the difference in earnings between women and men.2 Experts have calculated this gap in a multitude of ways, but the varying calculations point to a consensus: Women consistently earn less than men, and the gap is wider for most women of color.
amount women earn for every $1 earned by men
Analyzing the most recent Census Bureau data from 2018, women of all races earned, on average, just 82 cents for every $1 earned by men of all races.3 This calculation is the ratio of median annual earnings for women working full time, year round to those of their male counterparts, and it translates to a gender wage gap of 18 cents. When talking about the wage gap for women, it is important to highlight that there are significant differences by race and ethnicity. The wage gap is larger for most women of color. (see Figure 1)
The wage gaps for each group are calculated based on median earnings data from the U.S. Census Bureau and thus do not necessarily represent each individual woman’s personal experience. In particular, the 90-cent earnings figure for Asian women likely underestimates the wage gap experienced by women belonging to many Asian subgroups. For example, for every $1 earned by white, non-Hispanic men, Filipino women earned 83 cents, Tongan women earned 75 cents, and Nepali women earned 50 cents.4 The larger wage gaps for most women of color reflect the compounding negative effects of gender bias as well as racial and/or ethnic bias on their earnings.5
People living intersectional realities—such as transgender women and immigrant women—also experience the compounding negative effects of multiple biases on their earnings.6 Unfortunately, these women are often left out of the broader conversation about the gender wage gap owing to the limitations of available data. Much more data—disaggregated by sex, race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, and more factors—are needed to understand precisely where pay disparities exist and where efforts must be targeted.7
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What causes the gender wage gap?
These wage gap calculations reflect the ratio of earnings for women and men across all industries; they do not reflect a direct comparison of women and men doing identical work. This is purposeful. Calculating it this way allows experts to capture the multitude of factors driving the gender wage gap, which include but are not limited to:
- Differences in industries or jobs worked. By calculating a wholistic wage gap, researchers can see effects of occupational segregation, or the funneling of women and men into different types of industries and jobs based on gender norms and expectations. So-called women’s jobs, which are jobs that have historically had majority-female workforces, such as home health aides and child care workers, tend to offer lower pay and fewer benefits than so-called men’s jobs, which are jobs that have had predominantly male workforces, including jobs in trades such as building and construction. These gendered differences are true across all industries and the vast majority of occupations, at all levels, from frontline workers to midlevel managers to senior leaders.8
- Differences in years of experience. Women are disproportionately driven out of the workforce to accommodate caregiving and other unpaid obligations and thus tend to have less work experience than men. Access to paid family and medical leave makes women more likely to return to work—and more likely to return sooner. However, as of March 2019, only 19 percent of civilian workers had access to paid family leave through their employers and only 40 percent had access to short-term disability insurance benefits to deal with their own medical needs.9
- Differences in hours worked. Because women tend to work fewer hours to accommodate caregiving and other unpaid obligations, they are also more likely to work part time, which means lower hourly wages and fewer benefits compared with full-time workers.10
- Discrimination. Gender-based pay discrimination has been illegal11 since 1963 but is still a frequent, widespread practice—particularly for women of color.12 It can thrive especially in workplaces that discourage open discussion of wages and where employees fear retaliation. Beyond explicit decisions to pay women less than men, employers may discriminate in pay when they rely on prior salary history in hiring and compensation decisions; this can enable pay decisions that could have been influenced by discrimination to follow women from job to job.
These are just some of the major drivers of the gender wage gap. Other factors, meanwhile, help narrow the gap between women’s and men’s earnings. For example, increased educational attainment by women—particularly when women have more education than men—can help narrow the gap.13 Unionization can also help narrow the gap because workers collectively often have greater leverage to push for workplace changes, combat discriminatory practices targeting specific groups of workers, bargain for better working conditions and wages, and more.14 However, the cumulative effects of factors such as these are not large enough to close the gap entirely.15
It is important to note that many of these factors can be directly and indirectly influenced by discrimination based on gender and race or ethnicity. For example, societal and structural sexism often influences the jobs that women work in, and those same forces mean that women most often take on the majority of the caregiving, housework, and other unpaid responsibilities that men do not. So while experts have attributed the estimated 38 percent16 of the wage gap that is not explained by traditional measurable factors—such as hours worked and years of experience—to the effects of discrimination, it must be understood that discrimination likely affects more than just 38 percent of the wage gap.17
The gender wage gap is more than just a few cents
The most frequent way of discussing the wage gap, in terms of dollars and cents, may unintentionally obscure the real impact on working women and their families. For context, a woman working full time, year round earned $10,194 less than her male counterpart, on average, in 2018.18 If this wage gap were to remain unchanged, she would earn about $407,760 less than a man over the course of a 40-year career.19 Again, these earnings gaps are larger for most women of color. (see Figure 2)
An even larger consideration is the cumulative impact of the gender wage gap on all women working full time in the United States. Collectively, more than 55 million full-time working women earned an estimated $545.7 billion less than their male counterparts in 2019.20 If the gender wage gap had been closed entirely, this would have meant an additional $545.7 billion in the pockets of working women and their families—about $9,613.13 per woman—to cover student loan payments, mortgage payments, child care costs, prescription costs, groceries, emergency expenses, and more.21
What to do about the gender wage gap
The gender wage gap is not only complex and nuanced, but it is also stubborn. Without updated and comprehensive equal pay reform, the gender wage gap has only closed by 4 cents in more than a decade. At the current pace, women are not estimated to reach pay parity with men until 2059.22
To begin to close the gender wage gap, women need updated comprehensive equal pay legislation, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act,23 that will strengthen existing protections and further combat discriminatory practices. Other robust work-family policies are also essential to truly combating the multifaceted gender wage gap so that women—who disproportionately assume much of the caregiving responsibilities in their families—are not unfairly disadvantaged by taking time to address care needs. For example, access to paid sick days and a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program are just two of the essential policies that would help minimize job loss and ensure better economic security for all workers.24 Beyond public policy, society must confront cultural biases that continue to harm women—particularly women of color—by devaluing their work and confining them to specific gender roles. Only by enacting essential policies and shifting cultural attitudes can the United States begin to dismantle the patriarchal structures that systematically disadvantage and shortchange women and their families.
While women’s and men’s earnings may shift slightly each year with each new batch of Census Bureau data, the gender wage gap will not close anytime soon without concerted action. Efforts to close the wage gap must address the varying drivers of it as well as the multitude of biases that hold women—particularly women of color, LGBTQ women, and women with other diverse identities—and their families back. This is an issue of economic security and equality—and women and their families cannot afford to wait for either.