With their median yearly salary for full time employment at $40,742 for 2015, American women have never earned this much. What’s more encouraging, their salaries went up more: while men earned 1.5% more in 2015 than they did the previous year, for women the increase was 2.7%.
But the comparison between male and female earnings is still rather disappointing: the census reports (pdf, p.10) that “the 2015 female-to-male earnings ratio was 0.80, not statistically different from 2014.” Women still earn 20% less than men, a gap that hasn’t changed since 2007—and not significantly improved since the late 1980s.
Between the 1960s and the 1980s the gap was more significant and rather flat, with very little progress made in the way of equal pay despite the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and the Civil Rights Act in 1964 which prohibited wage discrimination based on gender. This was mainly due to the types of fields and jobs women would get into, and their tendency to abandon the work force once they had children.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the gap saw a significant shrinking: women started getting higher degrees and more women were joining professions that had traditionally been male-dominated. Women were doctors and lawyers, and though they were still making less than their male counterparts, the median female income went up significantly.
But then the trend slowed down, and then slowed down some more: in the past 15 years, the projected year when women wages would finally line up with men went up from 2059—already past the professional life of today’s working women—to 2159.
Why isn’t the pay gap shrinking?
Catherine Hill, the vice-president for research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) says that while education, and entering better paying fields, can help with the disparity it doesn’t alone suffice to close the gap. Hill, whose study The Simple Truth About the Pay Gap (pdf), published today (Sept. 22) by AAUW, says she found that even in the first year of work out of college, women earned less then men for similar jobs that required the same education.
“When we control for everything,” Hill told Quartz, “[the gap is] 7% one year out of college, in a population where you’d expect it not to be a lot of difference.” This is especially troublesome, Hill says, because “these early gaps determine future income, so it’s very important to pay attention to the first salary.”
Another element contributing to the career gap is that society doesn’t remunerate traditionally female-dominated fields in a way that is at odds with their value for society. Nurses and teachers, for instance, while doing a job that is known to be fundamental, aren’t compensated accordingly—which could have been influenced by the fact that historically women held those jobs, and hence were paid less. “We pay parking lot attendants more than we pay childcare workers,” noted Hill. If people were paid fairly across workplaces, she says, the gap would shrink too.
Finally, Hill explains, a woman’s life in this society influences her earnings. “The pay gap is about the choices women and men make, but also the choices we assume they are going to make,” says Hill: women are expected to become pregnant, and to spend more time taking care of children then men, therefore are offered fewer promotions and career opportunities.
This is exacerbated by the lack of family-friendly policies: whether a company offers maternity leave or not, it’s women who tend to stay at home to care for babies, at least in the first week of life—for biological reasons, particularly if they decide to breastfeed, and economic ones, since they usually make less than a male partner, so it’s more sustainable for the family. For many, it extends beyond the first few weeks: when families can’t face the prohibitive costs of child care, the only option may be for a woman to stay home and care of the kids. For similar reasons, women are more likely to take unpaid sick leave to take care of a family emergency.
Lisa Maatz, who leads government relationships and advocacy at AAUW, calls it the “motherhood penalty:” “When women have children, their salary goes down,” she said, while research shows that when men become fathers, their salary goes up.