Under current federal law, it is illegal to pay women less than men for equal work. And yet, the gender wage gap still exists, and the persistent lack of equal pay is one piece of the puzzle. It is an issue that affects women at all levels, in all types of jobs, across race, ethnicity, and other factors. This includes women in high profile roles, such as the current World Cup champions, to roles behind the scenes, like clerical workers and teachers.
The gender wage gap is caused by a number of differing elements, including some that can be measured. But a sizable portion of the wage gap—around 38 percent by some estimates—cannot be explained by measurable differences between genders. Many researchers hypothesize that this unexplained portion, along with at least some of the other observable differences, are attributable to gender discrimination.
Tackling the gender wage gap
Reducing the gender wage gap requires a lasting, comprehensive solution that addresses the different factors that drive the gap, including discrimination. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, enacted more than 50 years ago, established the core principle of “equal pay for equal work” to root out entrenched pay discrimination that consistently denied women fair wages. But, over time, the courts have narrowed the law’s reach, making it harder to hold employers accountable for discriminatory practices, even as the gender wage gap has persisted.
On March 27, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives took a significant, much-needed step forward to promote equal pay, combat pay discrimination, and—in the process—tackle a portion of the gender wage gap by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 7) with bipartisan support. However, as of late July 2019, the Senate has no clear plans to pass or even act on the equal pay legislation.
If enacted, the Paycheck Fairness Act would close legal loopholes that have been used to foreclose plaintiffs’ opportunities to vindicate their rights; remove obstacles to plaintiffs collectively challenging illegal practices through class action litigation; and improve remedies for plaintiffs so that they are consistent with the remedies available for pay discrimination and other forms of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also will combat discriminatory pay practices by better protecting workers from retaliation; limiting the use of salary history in the hiring process, which can perpetuate entrenched pay disparities and pay discrimination throughout a woman’s career; and requiring regular, disaggregated pay data collection to enhance employer transparency, identify significant pay gaps, and to bolster investigations of discrimination claims. While the Paycheck Fairness Act alone will not close the gender wage gap, it will be an important step in the right direction.
The Cost of the Pay Gap for Women
Long-standing pay disparities have depressed women’s earnings and weakened their economic stability for years. For millions of women and their families, the lack of equal pay is a pressing problem that impacts their daily lives and their ability to make ends meet. The Senate’s inaction on the Paycheck Fairness Act reveals a stubborn indifference to this real-world plight and, instead, sends the troubling message that women’s economic stresses are of little concern. In the 100 days after H.R. 7 passed the House, more than 55 million women working full time in the United States collectively earned $159 billion less than men due to the gender wage gap, according to new CAP analysis of monthly labor force numbers and median weekly earnings of full-time workers in the first and second fiscal quarters of 2019.* This number serves as a reminder that, while the wage gap is often referred to as a 20 cent gap between men and women, the cumulative impact is much larger than a couple of dimes. And, for most women of color, these disparities are far worse.
According to CAP analysis*, a woman working full time earned, on average, $2,828.57 less than a man working full time, due to the gender wage gap in the 100 days after the House passed the Paycheck Fairness Act. Broken down further during that same time period, on average, an African American woman earned $4,628.57 less than a white man working full time; a white woman earned $2,957.14 less; a Hispanic woman earned $5,742.86 less; and an Asian woman earned $228.57 less. However, this calculation for an Asian woman may vastly underestimate the actual gap for a woman belonging to an ethnic Asian subgroup because of the wide diversity across Asian subgroups. For example, while Asian women overall earn 85 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men, Cambodian women earn just 60 cents in the same comparison. Due to the limitations of the source data, the authors could not analyze the wage losses for ethnic Asian subgroups nor for Native women.
Why the Paycheck Fairness Act is Needed
The Paycheck Fairness Act could begin to level the playing field by chipping away at the portion of the persistent gender wage gap that is likely caused, or at least affected, by discrimination. If the male-female earnings gap had been reduced by even 38 percent—the estimated portion that is unexplained and potentially attributed to discrimination—in the 100 days following the passage of H.R. 7, women would have earned an additional $60 billion. That would mean $60 billion that could have helped cover mortgage payments, student loans, child care costs, prescription costs, household bills, car repairs, groceries, emergency expenses, and more.
When the Paycheck Fairness Act’s co-sponsor, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), brought H.R. 7 to the floor on April 2 for a vote of unanimous consent, the motion was swiftly rejected. Sen. Murray introduced a Senate version of the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 270) back in January of 2019, which was referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. However, there has been no further formal action. Instead, the Paycheck Fairness Act is at a standstill, being blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Inaction is unacceptable. Today’s wage gap has only decreased by two cents in the past 10 years.
At the current rate, experts estimate that the gender wage gap in the U.S. will not close until 2059. That’s 40 years away. Over the course of a 40-year career, an individual woman loses more than $406,000 to the gender wage gap. And, predictably, the estimated losses are much higher for many women of color: An African American woman loses $946,120; a Native woman loses $977,720; a Latina loses $1,135,440; and an Asian woman loses $360,400.
As the Senate fails to act, the losses to the gender wage gap will only continue to grow. Lawmakers must give more than the occasional feigned support for equal pay. They must demonstrate true commitment to “equal pay for equal work,” and they must do so for all workers—not just the rich and famous who make headlines. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act would be a great start. On this issue, inaction is injustice.
Robin Bleiweis is a research assistant of women’s economic security for the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center. Sarah Jane Glynn is a nonresident senior fellow at the Center.
*Authors’ note: Unless otherwise noted, this analysis uses data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The individual earnings gaps reported compare median weekly earnings (Table 2) for full-time workers by race and gender from the first and second fiscal quarters of 2019. The cumulative earnings gap reported compares those same earnings to monthly labor force totals for employed, full-time working women for March, April, May, and June 2019. Authors did not have access to July labor force numbers at the time of publication and projected June labor force numbers for analysis of the first five days of July to calculate the earnings gap for March 27 to July 5. Women whose ethnicity is identified as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race.