Center for American Progress

What Barbie Can Teach Us About the Gender Wage Gap

What Barbie Can Teach Us About the Gender Wage Gap

Despite decades of efforts to boost women’s representation throughout the U.S. economy, women still face a pay gap in nearly every single occupation—even high-paying ones.

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A theater in Los Angeles announces the opening of the
A theater in Los Angeles announces the opening of the "Barbie" movie on July 21, 2023. (Getty/AFP/Valerie Macon)

Doctor, physicist, lawyer—what do these jobs have in common? Not only are they high-profile careers represented by Barbie dolls over the past 60 years and in the recently released movie, but they are also examples of well-paid professions where women are underrepresented and paid less than their male counterparts. For example, only 22 percent of astronomers and physicists and only 39 percent of lawyers are women. The fact that so few women work in these high-paying jobs contributes to the existence of a persistent gender wage gap that harms both women and their families throughout their lives.

The fact that so few women work in these high-paying jobs contributes to the existence of a persistent gender wage gap that harms both women and their families.

Moreover, while the few women who do work in these jobs are typically earning more than other women, they, too, generally earn less than their male counterparts. In fact, in nearly every single U.S. occupation, working women will usually face a wage gap caused by a range of factors, including outright discrimination and caregiving responsibilities that tend to fall heaviest on women.

Men are more likely than women to work in high-paying jobs

The typical woman working full time, year-round earns 84 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts; and for all women workers, regardless of hours or weeks worked, that figure dips to 77 cents. One of the core drivers behind this gender wage gap is occupational segregation, by which women—most acutely, Black women and Latinas—are overrepresented in low-paid work, while men are overrepresented in high-paid work. This is the result of cultural norms and biases about the role of different groups of workers and policy choices.

In fact, many of the same jobs represented by Barbies over the past few decades, such as lawyers, remain male dominated. (see Figure 1) Notably, when looking at the 10 highest-paying occupations—defined by dollar terms—in the United States, white men account for at least half of all workers. By contrast, among the 10 lowest-paying occupation, women and men of color account for, at a minimum, more than half of workers.

Indeed, within many high-powered industries, disparities in representation worsen at the highest levels of the occupation, even when compared with the striking disparities that already exist in these professions as a whole. For instance, while 39 percent of lawyers are women, only 19 percent of equity partners—lawyers with ownership shares of law firms—are women. And while there are many types of doctors, women tend to be underrepresented among physicians and surgeons, some of the highest-paying occupations.

Better data are needed to understand the experiences of transgender women

While existing data reveal important trends, further information is needed to better understand the experiences of all workers. Notably, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey does not collect information about sexual orientation and gender identity. Policies such as the LGBTQI+ Data Inclusion Act would go a long way toward better understanding the salary and employment differences of a broader set of people.

The gender wage gap exists across most fields, including high-paying occupations

It is not just the typical working woman who experiences a pay gap; women in well-paid occupations do as well. For example, female astronomers and physicists earn just 84 cents for every $1 earned by men, while female lawyers earn just 80 cents for every $1 earned by their male counterparts. Similarly, female reporters and journalists earn 88 cents for every $1 earned by male reporters and journalists. (see Figure 2)

Even when men and women are equally represented in an occupation, such as actors, or when women are overrepresented, such as writers and authors, they likely experience a pay gap.

“Barbie” actors and writers are striking to demand better pay and conditions

In July 2023, many of the actors behind “Barbie” took their own steps to fight for better pay and conditions for themselves and their colleagues by exercising their right to strike—a form of collective action. Members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) union joined their colleagues in the Writers Guild of America (WGA) to strike in direct response to the ongoing and looming impacts of streaming services and technological disruption on their pay and work. July’s strike marks the first time since 1960—a year after the Barbie doll was first launched—that both actors and writers have been on strike. They join workers from a wide range of industries, including teachers, baristas, and nurses, who have participated in strikes over the past few years.

The majority of actors are not millionaires and, in fact, make middle-class salaries, as SAG-AFTRA union members have highlighted. This is borne out in the American Community Survey data: The typical actor, regardless of sex, made just $53,170 in 2021. However, women actors face significant pay gaps that are far worse than that of the median working woman, with the typical female actor working full time, year-round earning just 57 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

Notably, unionization is a critical step to closing the gender wage gap. Unionized women typically out-earn women that are not in a union and, as a result, experience a smaller wage gap. This is because collective bargaining agreements standardize wage and benefit rates and help strengthen pathways for workers to speak up when they have been discriminated against. Women in a union are also more likely to have better-quality jobs, including access to paid leave. While actors and writers, as well as many other workers, enjoy the right to unionize, more needs to be done to ensure it is easier for all workers to join a union and improve their collective bargaining rights. To help achieve this end, Congress should pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would empower and protect the rights of workers to join a union.


To some, Barbie is emblematic of aspirations for gender equity in the workplace. As more people see women of all backgrounds—including race, ethnicity, religion, and gender identity—in high-wage roles, cultural norms and expectations should change. But policymakers have a critical role to play in this by creating pathways for more women to enter and stay in male-dominated occupations, including through investing in child care, creating pathways into STEM education, and ensuring these jobs are safe and free from harassment. Additionally, lawmakers must invest in work where women are overrepresented by raising the minimum wage and providing universal access to family and medical leave. Only then can we take a meaningful step toward closing the gender wage gap.

The authors would like to thank Kelly McCoy, Sarah Nadeau, and Anona Neal for their helpful feedback and assistance.


This column uses data from the 2021 American Community Survey. To calculate the share of women in each occupation, authors used publicly available information on the number of male full-time, year-round workers and female full-time, year-round workers in select occupations. To calculate the gender wage gap, they determined the ratio of male median earnings to female median earnings for U.S. civilians working full time, year-round in select occupations. These select occupations, many of which were featured in the Barbie movie, included actors; astronomers and physicists; lawyers; news analysts, reporters, and journalists; and writers and authors.

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.


Rose Khattar

Former Director of Economic Analysis, Inclusive Economy

Sara Estep

Associate Director

Lily Roberts

Managing Director, Inclusive Growth

Maggie Jo Buchanan

Former Senior Director and Senior Legal Fellow, Women’s Initiative


Women’s Initiative

The Women’s Initiative develops robust, progressive policies and solutions to ensure all women can participate in the economy and live healthy, productive lives.

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