Wage Discrimination: Behind the Numbers

A plaintiff, center, speaks after a news conference in the field office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to announce a settlement in their case in Denver, February 2016.

Equal pay is often framed in the public debate as being solely a women’s issue. But a close look at the data reveals that wage discrimination is a problem experienced by many different groups, including women, men, older workers, and workers with disabilities.

A review of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge filings data—both public and unpublished—helps paint a diverse and nuanced picture of wage discrimination claims. Having a clearer, more accurate understanding of wage discrimination is essential in identifying the breadth of the challenges facing workers and the most effective solutions in response to the needs of workers.

The majority of wage discrimination charges alleging discrimination based on gender are filed by women. But a portion of gender-based wage discrimination charges are also filed by men. A review of unpublished EEOC data from the past four fiscal years shows that men filed, on average, 15 percent of gender-based wage discrimination charges.

Overall, wage discrimination charges are filed under several different laws prohibiting employment discrimination. The majority of wage discrimination charges are filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These charges include claims alleging wage discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, and religion. Gender-based wage discrimination claims are also filed under the Equal Pay Act. Nearly one-fifth of wage discrimination charges include an allegation of wage discrimination based on age, and a slightly smaller percentage of charges allege wage discrimination on the basis of disability.

The data make clear that wage discrimination is experienced by workers in a variety of different ways. This diverse snapshot is important to understand because too often, opponents of strengthening equal pay protections dismiss concerns about unequal pay, arguing that wage discrimination is simply about women’s choices. But the data tell a different story. Pay disparities persist across many different groups. Stereotypes about workers because of their race, age, disability status, or other factors can result in discrimination that devalues their work and results in lower pay. These economic consequences can be devastating for working families trying to make ends meet.

This necessitates concrete solutions and tools that combat wage discrimination while reflecting a broader understanding of discrimination in its different forms. Tools aimed at providing greater insight into pay differences are critical. For example, the Employer Information Report, or EEO-1 form—a form that employers with 100 or more employees are required to file annually to provide a demographic breakdown of their workforce—was updated during the Obama administration to require the inclusion of pay data across different job categories. This new information will provide invaluable and greater insight into pay differences by race, ethnicity, and gender that can inform federal agency enforcement efforts. Additional strategies are also needed to examine how wage discrimination operates in the workplace and whether intersectional differences such as age, disability status, and emerging areas of the law such as LGBTQ status affect pay disparities among workers, rather than assuming pay disparities are normal or to be expected.

Equal pay for equal work is a cornerstone of this nation’s commitment to equality and fairness in the workplace. To combat wage discrimination effectively, it is vital to recognize the diverse ways pay disparities arise in the workplace and to pursue a wide range of strategies in response.

Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Kaitlin Holmes is a research assistant for the Women’s Initiative at the Center.