By Michelle Chen

The gender wage gap is a stubborn fixture of our economic landscape, but new research shows that the reality of today’s wage gap is more complicated than the figure often bandied about in Washington—“80 cents to a man’s dollar.” In fact, the gap might actually be much worse, yet much simpler to fix, than we assume.

According to a new analysis of historical wage data by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), the oft-cited 20 percent gap, which focuses on short-term earnings, misses the context of women’s lives. When mapped over 15-year periods, the long-term gender earnings gap might widen to as much as 50 percent. IWPR’s more nuanced methodology incorporates “workforce attachment,” which captures both the consistency and long-term growth of earnings. When comparing male and female workers who are “strongly attached” to the labor market (defined as working throughout at least 12 out of 15 years, full-time, year round), the earnings gap from 2001 to 2015 is about 30 percent. But when comparing workers with varying levels of attachment, across the broader workforce, the gender gap jumps to 51 percent.

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