Monday marks 50 years since the Equal Pay Act was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy as an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law stipulates that women must be paid equal wages for equal work. Yet a half century later, the gender wage gap still stands at 77 cents earned by a woman for every dollar a man makes. Here are some other reasons why progress has been glacially slow since 1963:
1. The wage gap has widened recently. The gender wage gap was wider in 2011 than in 2010 and was actually at the same level as in 2009. Back in the 1980s, the gap narrowed by more than 10 percentage points. But it’s only closed by about one percentage point since 2001. While the gap stood at just above 60 cents on the dollar when the Equal Pay Act went into effect, we’ve all but stopped making progress on closing it completely.
2. Women’s choices can’t explain the gender wage gap. The Government Accountability Office looked at whether factors such as job tenure, industry and occupation, work patterns, race, and marital status could explain the gender wage gap. Yet when it stripped them out, it still found an 80 percent gap that it couldn’t account for.
3. Women earn less than men no matter how much education they get. It’s widely known that women are graduating college in greater numbers than men and that higher education gives workers a wage boost. Yet it’s not enough to close the gap. Researchers have found that young women fresh out of college experience a 7 percent wage gap compared to their male peers at their first job. That gap follows them no matter how much more education they seek out: at every level of higher ed, women make less than men, earning $1,417 less for a business degree and a full $2,610 less for an advanced degree in science.
4. Mothers experience a steep wage gap. Just one in five families today feature a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mother. Yet despite how many mothers work, they are penalized heavily by the gender wage gap. While men and women start out with a wage gap at an early age, they still see similar growth in their pay through age 30, taking in about 60 percent more. But many women start having children at age 30, and that’s when their wage growth slows, nearly grinding to a halt by age 39. In fact, mothers earn 5 percent less per hour per child than childless women.
5. Most workers can’t talk about pay, so women have a tough time addressing discrimination. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly half of all workers are either expressly forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with coworkers. This is a big barrier facing women who may suspect they are being paid less than their male peers but who can’t ask directly.
Few federal laws addressing the gender wage gap have been enacted since the Equal Pay Act five decades ago. The Lilly Ledbetter Act took an important step toward reducing the legal barriers facing women who are discriminated against, but the gap has actually widened since the law was enacted. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which has been introduced but voted down in Congress many times, would go an important step further and end salary secrecy, empowering women to better root out unequal pay.