The Gender Wage Gap Double Whammy

Lower Pay and Lack of Paid Leave Slams Working Women

Sarah Jane Glynn details the damage inflicted on women’s lifetime earnings by the gender wage gap and shows how paid family and medical leave can help solve the problem.

Lisa Seelye, a single mother working for minimum wage at a fast food restaurant, sits with her  daughters. Female-dominated industries, like food service, are the least likely to offer paid sick days, in spite of the fact that women are the most likely to need to miss work to care for a sick child, partner, or parent. (AP/ Ross Weitzner)
Lisa Seelye, a single mother working for minimum wage at a fast food restaurant, sits with her daughters. Female-dominated industries, like food service, are the least likely to offer paid sick days, in spite of the fact that women are the most likely to need to miss work to care for a sick child, partner, or parent. (AP/ Ross Weitzner)

Women now make up about half of all workers on U.S. payrolls, and nearly two-thirds of mothers are now breadwinners for their families or share that responsibility with a partner. Among families with children nearly half (44.8 percent) were headed by two working parents in 2010, the last year for which there are complete data, and another one in four (26.1 percent) were headed by a single parent. More women in the workforce is partly due to personal choices and partly due to economics—just about the only married-couple families that have experienced real income growth over the past 30 years are those in which both parents work.

Even among married-couple families earning $200,000 or more per year, nearly three-quarters (72.5 percent) of wives were in the paid labor force in 2010. As a result, most married-couple families, regardless of income, no longer have a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver. And for those single-parent families headed by a woman—as 85.3 percent of single-parent families were in 2011—the balance of work and family is nearly impossible to meet.

In spite of the importance of women’s economic contributions to their families’ wellbeing, the gender wage gap persists. In 2010 the average woman earned only 77 cents to the average man’s dollar. The gap has narrowed over the last generation, as it stood at about 59 cents to the dollar in 1975, but has stalled in recent years.

Nearly half of the wage gap between men and women is due to differences in occupations, with women concentrated in industries that have historically been paid less. But even when controlling for occupation, education, and experience, economists cannot explain about 40 percent of the wage gap between men and women. But part of the gender gap is due to the fact that the institutions around us—schools, churches, workplaces, and government—have not adjusted to reflect the realities of how today’s families work and live.

But we do know this: About 10 percent of the gender wage gap is due to differences in work experience between men and women, which are often the result of caregiving responsibilities. As workers with care responsibilities withdraw from the workforce or limit their time at work, they take home less income in the short run, are less likely to earn raises and promotions at the same pace, have less access to workplace retirement benefits, earn less in Social Security retirement benefits, and accumulate lower lifetime earnings.

In spite of the fact that all of the adults in most families are employed, the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee workers paid time off to care for a new child, and one of only a handful of industrialized countries that do not guarantee paid time off to provide other forms of family care. Currently, women are more likely than men to leave a job or shift from full-time to part-time work when a new child arrives. Women are also more likely to leave a job or make the shift from full- to part-time work in order to provide ongoing care to an elderly, ailing parent. Some workers are left with little option but to make such a choice as they face workplaces with no paid sick days, no paid family-leave policies, or inflexible scheduling practices. 

Our nation’s workplace policies do not have to work this way. Because a not-insignificant portion of the gender wage gap is due to differences in work experiences that often result from caregiving needs, paid sick days and paid family and medical leave would go a long way in helping to promote wage equality.

The importance of paid sick days

Nearly 4 in 10 working women do not have access to paid sick days when they or a family member are ill. And female-dominated industries are the least likely to offer paid sick days, in spite of the fact that women are the most likely to need to miss work to care for a sick child, partner, or parent. This means that working women must either forgo pay or risk losing their job when they need to take an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment, or stay home with a child who has the flu.

The economic contributions of women are often vitally important to their families, and when the loss of wages due to illness is compounded with the gender wage gap, the results can be disastrous. The average wage for workers without access to paid sick days is about $10 per hour. Imagine a single mother earning this wage with two children and no paid sick days. If one of her kids got the chicken pox and she had to miss more than three days of work without pay, it would push her family below the federal poverty line.

Women workers dominate food service, where the annual gender wage gap is even larger for servers, the largest occupational category in the industry. The average full-time, year-round female server only earns about 68 cents to her male counterpart’s dollar. Much of this gap is due to the types of establishments where female servers are more heavily concentrated. Women are more likely to be employed in family style and quick serve restaurants, while male servers are more heavily concentrated in fine dining restaurant where earnings are significantly higher.

On top of this larger-than-average wage gap, 90 percent of restaurant workers do not have access to paid sick days. Since the average female server only earns $17,000 a year, they often cannot afford to lose pay even if they or their children are ill. Therefore, it should not be shocking that 70 percent of women (and 67 percent of men) in the restaurant industry report having to go to cook, prepare, or serve food while sick.

Paid family and medical leave would help close the gap

Some family caregiving situations can arise that would prevent employees from being at work for more than the amount of time usually available to those who have access to paid sick days, for example the arrival of a new child or the serious illness of a family member. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides unpaid, job-protected leave for these types of events, but only about half of the workforce qualifies for the leave provided though this act, and nearly 80 percent of those who need leave are unable to take it because it is unpaid.

Young workers and people of color are particularly likely to be excluded from taking unpaid, job-protected leave. And because the Family and Medical Leave Act only provides unpaid leave, men are less likely to take it to care for a child than women are. This is both because men tend to earn more than women, and because men often do not think that unpaid leave is intended for them.

In contrast, when paid leave is offered, men are much more likely to take it. It is important to note that men do not eschew unpaid leave because they do not want to take care of their families, but rather because the wage gap currently makes it more economically feasible in many families for women to take unpaid time off instead. Paid leave would enable men to take caregiving leave, both to care for and bond with new children and to care for ill family members, without requiring a total loss of income for that time.

While the average woman earns less than the average man, there is also a wage gap between mothers and nonmothers. The “mother’s wage penalty” is estimated at approximately 7 percent per child, and just under one-third of the gap is attributed to the consequences of taking leave to care for children. Because a significant portion of the gender wage gap between men and women is due to differences in the work histories of men and women, access to paid leave that would encourage men to take it would help to reduce the stigma around taking leave, and is an important component of reducing the gender wage gap.

How to close the gender wage gap

There is reason to believe that the unexplained portions of the wage gap, both between men and women and between mothers and childless women, are due to discrimination. Because women tend to be the caregivers for their families and are more likely to take time out of the workforce when family care needs arise, employers may erroneously believe that women are less serious about their careers and are less dependable workers than men. Enabling men to take paid caregiving leave, whether through better access to paid sick days or paid family and medical leave, would help to challenge these outdated gender stereotypes and would promote more gender equitable workplaces for both men and women.

In addition to supporting policies to promote gender equity in pay, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, we must also strive to promote gender equity in caregiving leave. Currently there are no federal laws guaranteeing workers the right to paid sick days. The Healthy Families Act would provide workers with the right to up to seven job-protected paid sick days per year to recover from their own short-term illnesses or to care for an ill family member. And Social Security Cares , a model paid family and medical leave program developed by the Center for American Progress, would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for workers who need to care for a new child or seriously ill family member, which would boost enable caregiver’s employment while promoting greater gender equity.

On Equal Pay Day these are reforms men and women together can and should get behind.

Sarah Jane Glynn is a Policy Analyst with the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

See also:


The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sarah Jane Glynn

Senior Fellow