We’ve been talking about the gender pay gap all wrong.
This time each year, the Census Bureau’s new annual earnings figures come out, and we learn how wide the gender pay gap was for the previous year. We then convert this figure into the classic analogy of cents on the dollar.
In 2015, women earned 80 cents on the dollar compared to men. It’s the mathematical result of dividing median annual earnings for female full-time, year-round workers over the age of 15 by those of similar working men.
But when we lead off a discussion about women’s earnings in this way, it often devolves into a fruit metaphor. Comparing men’s and women’s earnings using “cents to the dollar,” say pay gap deniers, is like comparing apples and oranges.
Yet advocates continue to fall back on cents to the dollar to make the argument that women are getting shortchanged.
Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result?
There’s a more constructive way to approach the gender pay gap — the long view. Instead of comparing men and women head to head, we should look at how the women’s earnings ratio has changed over time. Opening this aperture reveals a richer narrative about the progress women have made in the workplace and what remains for our society to address.
We now have access to 55 years of gender pay gap data from the Census. In that time span, the women’s earnings ratio has increased from 61 cents on the dollar in 1960 to 80 cents on the dollar in 2015.
What this says is that we are at the halfway point of fully integrating women into the workforce. We’ve closed the gap by about 20 cents, and we’ve got another 20 cents to go.
We also have decades of census data tracking the gender pay gap by race. Black women currently make 66% of what men make overall, and Latina women make 60%. So we must remember that there’s not only a gender pay gap, but also a race and ethnicity pay gap, with its own unique obstacles.
Here’s the thing: Most of the progress women made in closing the pay gap came during the 1980s. Increased labor force participation, increased educational achievement, and increased legal protections and social opposition to bias against women all helped move the needle — but their impact has waned over time.
Unfortunately, women’s gains have slowed. The Census Bureau reported recently that the pay gap hasn’t improved by a statistically significant amount since 2007. Women as a whole still work fewer hours than men do, and women as a whole work in different jobs than men do. And many women still experience bias and discrimination in the workplace. The pay gap will persist until we dissect and diagnose each of these problems.
For example, research from the website PayScale shows that women who have never been married, don’t have kids, and always prioritize work over their personal life do not have a pay gap. But according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, working mothers with children at home make 75 cents on the dollar compared to working fathers. No doubt, this is a consequence of gendered expectations of caregiving. Outdated policies on family leave don’t help.
Next, research from Glassdoor tells us that the biggest factor contributing to the pay gap today is the difference in occupation and industry between men and women. About 6.5 million women are employed in three occupations: secretaries and administrative assistants, elementary and middle school teachers, and registered nurses. Only about 900,000 men work in these roles. And none of these jobs rank in the top decile of highest-paying occupations. So, why is it that the social value of supporting, nurturing, and caregiving roles—jobs predominately represented by women—is not fully reflected in the pay of those who do this demanding work?
Finally, the best academic research indicates that gender bias is still alive and well. Cornell economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn estimate that about 38% of the gender pay gap, or about eight cents, cannot be attributed to observable factors like occupation, experience, and education. It’s what women lose just for being women.
What we should take from this research is that a solution to the pay gap must be multifaceted. We must address bias, but if we don’t also address childcare and occupational factors too, women will still be at least 12 cents short of dollar parity.
Hopefully, closing the final 20 cents of the gender pay gap won’t take another 55 years. But the more that we dig our heels into an argument that puts us at a disadvantage from the start, the harder we make it on ourselves to achieve meaningful progress.
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Emily Liner is an economics policy advisor at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., and the author of A Dollar Short: What’s Holding Women Back from Equal Pay?