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Everything you need to know about the gender wage gap

What is the gender wage gap?

The gender wage gap is the difference between how much men and women are paid. There are a variety of metrics that show this gap, but in the US, one of the most-cited figures is that women make 78 percent as much as men make in a year. The gap is either larger or smaller depending on whether one looks at it on an hourly, weekly, or annual basis.

The wage gap is the product of many factors, ranging from outright employer discrimination to differences in the occupations men and women choose and the hours they work. It is also a long-standing concern in the US. Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, but major gender pay disparities still exist more than 50 years later, despite other legislative actions intended to create more equality.

However, the issue remains controversial. There is, for example, widespread disagreement on the best way to measure the wage gap. Some believe the 78 percent figure is misleading because women tend to work in lower-paying fields than men. And while Democrats have put forth more legislation aimed at shrinking that gap, Republicans argue that the Equal Pay Act already made it illegal to discriminate on gender, and that any further legislation is unnecessary.

Why is there a gender wage gap?

Lots of factors contribute to the gap in pay between men and women. There's outright discrimination, of course. And if that's all there was than the gender-wage gap would be simple to quantify.

But researchers have identified many more differences between men and women that contribute to the wage gap. For example, women tend to work fewer hours than men, even among full-time workers. Women also tend to work in lower-paying fields than men. That means that different approaches to measuring the gap come up with different numbers than the oft-used 78 percent figure.

Other factors that are tougher to measure are also involved. Women tend not to negotiate their pay as hard as men do, and there is also evidence that employers are averse to promoting young women, as employers worry that those women will not stick around or will start putting in fewer hours when they have children. Women are also less interested than men are in becoming the boss, as a Pew study found in late 2013.

In addition, pay secrecy — when employers discourage or prohibit employees from discussing their pay — can contribute to unequal pay. It's easier for pay discrepancies to remain in place and even worsen when workers do not know those discrepancies exist.

How big is the wage gap?

The often-cited 78 percent figure, which comes from Census data, is the broadest measure and measures annual income for all full-time year-round workers. However, a Labor Department measure of weekly wages finds that women make 82 percent of what men make.

The differences between these two figures are important to keep in mind. The 77-percent figure not only measures annual wages, but it includes self-employed workers, whereas the Labor Department figure does not. However, the Labor Department includes some workers who do not work year-round, like construction workers.

Another popular measure, based on hourly wages, complicates matters further. In a December 2013 report, the Pew Research Center found that full-time working women make 84 percent of what men make on an hourly basis. This differs slightly from the weekly figure (which was 81 percent at the time) because women tend to work fewer hours than men.

What is the best measure of the wage gap?

Researchers argue endlessly over this question. Figures that only take annual, weekly, or hourly wages into account, for example, ignore the fact that men and women have differing levels of educational attainment and also tend to work in different fields.

Some studies have attempted to adjust for or measure these effects. A 2012 study from the American Association of University Women, for example, found a wage gap of 18 percent among recent college graduates. However, after adjusting for factors like occupation and college major, the study found a gap of 6.6 percent remaining.

Another 2007 study by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn attempted to measure how large the different wage gap components were. Using 1998 data, the researchers found that the industries and occupations that women and men choose account for nearly half the gap. However, they also found that around 41 percent of the wage gap was "unexplained" by more measurable factors like education, experience, and job choice.

These studies can be illuminating, in the sense that they show that both measurable and immeasurable factors contribute to wage inequities in the US. However, simply adjusting for factors like college major and occupational choice can obscure deeper forces in the economy that push women into lower-paid occupations or to spend more time raising children.

Do women make less than men in all jobs?

Almost. Among 111 occupations for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has 2013 median weekly wage data, women only out-earned men in three categories: bakers (in which women earned around 107 percent of what men earned), wholesale and retail buyers (also around 107 percent), and a small category of jobs classified as "computer occupations, all other" (nearly 104 percent). However, across all occupations, women only earned 82 percent of what men earned on a weekly basis.

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Is the gender wage gap shrinking?

It has shrunk considerably over time, but that trend appears to be slowing. According to data from the National Committee on Pay Equity, a nonprofit that promotes gender pay equity, full-time, year-round working women earned less than 58 percent of what men did as recently as 1972. That figure crept upwards over the years, hitting a high of 77.8 percent in 2007. However, it has since then leveled off, and in 2012 was at 76.5 percent.

Why the slow-down in progress? There is some evidence that occupational integration — the phenomenon of jobs desegregating by gender and having more equal numbers of men and women — has leveled off. In addition, a 2013 Cornell study argued that the trend toward more long hours at work contributes to the wage gap, in part because women continue to spend more time on housework and caring for children than men do.

However, there is reason to think the wage gap might shrink more in the future, and that reason can be found in the fact that women are increasingly better educated than men. According to a March 2014 longitudinal study from the Labor Department, 32 percent of 27-year-old women had four-year college degrees, compared with only 24 percent of men.

That trend is true across larger swaths of the young population as well. A 2013 Pew Research Center analysis shows that 25-to-32-year-old women started to surpass men in education in the mid-1990s, and today are starting their careers with college degrees in far greater numbers than their male counterparts.

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Is the gender wage gap the only type of wage gap?

Not at all. There is also a large wage gap by race and ethnicity, for example. According to census data, Asians tend to earn more than non-Hispanic whites, and both of those groups earn more than African-Americans or Hispanics of any race. However, across all four of these racial and ethnic groups, men always make more than women do.

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Studies have shown pay inequity in other areas as well. A 2013 study from the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that disabled Americans make 10 percent less than other workers who have similar jobs. Studies have also found varying wage gaps between gay and transgender Americans and the rest of the population.

Do childless women have a smaller wage gap?

Yes. Numerous studies have confirmed that childless women tend to make more money than mothers. A 2001 study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, for example, found a wage penalty for mothers of around 7 percent per child. And a 2003 study published by Cornell University found a gap between these two groups of around 3 to 5 percent that could not be explained by controlling for measurable factors like mothers' skill levels.

There is also evidence that employers tend to discriminate against mothers but not fathers. A 2007 study found that in a lab setting, study participants evaluated mothers as less competent and less committed than childless women, while the same effect did not happen among men. Participants also recommended a lower starting salary for mothers than for nonmothers.

One factor that contributes heavily to this pay gap is taking time off to raise children. A 2012 study from the National Institutes of Health found that women taking time off work while not enrolled in school accounted for the wage gap not explained by work experience and occupation.

Do some states have bigger gender pay gaps?

Very much so. The gap between men's and women's earnings varies widely from state to state. According to data from the American Association of University Women, Washington, DC, has the smallest wage gap, with full-time, year-round working women earning 90 percent of what men do. Next are Maryland, Nevada, and Vermont, all with 85 percent. At the bottom is Wyoming, where women earn 64 percent of what men do.

State-by-state and regional differences exist for a variety of reasons. States like North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming, for example, might have large gaps in part because they have many well-paid jobs in male-dominated fields like mining and oil and gas extraction. Other factors like age, race, and education levels also play large roles in determining a state's wage gap.

How does the US wage gap compare to other countries?

The US has a bigger gender wage gap than most other nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization of developed countries. Among 28 nations for which the OECD has data, the US as of 2010 had the fifth largest wage gap, tied with four other countries.

American full-time, year-round working women earned 19 percent less than their male counterparts — the same gap as seen in Austria, Finland, Canada and Switzerland. The gap for all 28 nations together, meanwhile, was 15 percent. The smallest gap — in Hungary, Poland and Spain — was 6 percent.

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What laws are in place to fight the wage gap?

Perhaps the most famous is the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a law that required that women and men be paid equally for equal work. That law further specified that it was the content of a job, not its title, that counted. If a man and a woman performed jobs that were similar in areas including skill level, responsibility, and effort, then they must be paid equally. However, the law allowed for differences in pay based on seniority and job performance.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act said employers couldn't discriminate based on gender, alongside other factors like race and national origin. This law also addressed a wider variety of job aspects than pay, including hiring, firing, benefits, and terms of employment.

In 2009, Congress took another step with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which overrode a Supreme Court decision that said an employee had only 180 days after an act of discrimination to file a lawsuit. The Ledbetter act made it clear that each new paycheck constitutes a new act of discrimination, and therefore resets the clock on that 180-day window. However, it only allows the complaining party to obtain back pay for up to two years.

Congress is currently considering the Paycheck Fairness Act. Some form of the act has been proposed in every congressional session since 1997. It requires employers to justify pay discrepancies and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who disclose their own wages or ask about other workers'. It would also allow plaintiffs to recover compensatory and punitive damages, which they cannot currently do under the Equal Pay Act.

Equal pay laws are also common at the state level. In addition, 45 states have passed some form of law prohibiting wage discrepancies based on gender, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One other measure that could shrink the wage gap would be a higher minimum wage. Though minimum wage bills do not explicitly target genders, the bill would have a disproportionately large effect on women, as they account for nearly two-thirds of all workers paid at or below the federal minimum wage level.

You didn't answer my question!

This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.

So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to Danielle Kurtzleben: danielle@vox.com.

What else should I be reading about the wage gap?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws, has basic information explaining discrimination laws and how employers can comply with them and what affected workers can do if they feel they are being discriminated against.

A variety of organizations that promote equal pay laws have in-depth information on those laws and their potential effects. Three of the best are the American Civil Liberties Union, American Association of University Women, and National Women's Law Center.

There is also plenty of material from organizations who think the wage gap is overblown. This policy brief from the Independent Women's Forum explains this idea in-depth, as do these blog posts from the Heritage Foundation.

How has this cardstack changed?

This cardstack is a work in progress and is being updated to reflect news in the gender wage gap area. This is a list of changes made over time to these cards, as well as when those changes were made:

  • October 1, 2014: Several cards were updated to reflect that the wage gap for full-time, year-round workers moved from 23 to 22 percent in 2013, per new Census Bureau data.
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