Imagine if the difference between men’s and women’s pay for the same work was actually worse than what we thought? This was one disappointing conclusion researchers at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) came to in a study of the different labor force experiences of women and men across a 15-year time span. The ratio that’s frequently cited by experts is that women earn 80 cents to the typical men’s dollar, while according to this study, that ratio is a more depressing 49 cents to the dollar.
So, what accounts for that underestimation? The main difference is the length of time being analyzed, says Heidi Hartmann, PhD, IWPR president and co-author of the study. “The 80-cent figure compares women and men who work full-time, year-round in a given year, but that leaves most women workers out of the picture,” says Hartmann. The 15-year scope of the study gave researchers a better understanding of the pay inequality. “Most of the difference is due to women working less than men.” Hartmann adds. “Some of that is schooling — women are getting more schooling than men — but a lot of it is family care. Someone has to do it, and it is still most often women, and that reduces her earnings a lot.”
That being said, the news isn’t all bad. The study reveals there has been progress over the last 50 years. “We looked at the three time periods,” explains Hartmann. “In the first period, women in the 1970s earned 19 cents on the dollar to men. Clearly the gap is still far too wide, considering the many gains women have made in entering the labor force, working more, and attaining higher education, but there has been progress.”
Now that women are doing all they can on their own to catch up to the wages of men, Hartmann points to the need for policies, such as paid leave and better access to affordable childcare, to help narrow the gap further. “With the cost of care high and rising, it is often difficult for those who are responsible for the care of young children or elderly family members to remain in the paid labor force consistently,” says Hartmann. “Studies in the states that have state-run paid leave programs show that access to paid leave actually increases women’s attachment to the labor force.” It makes sense that if you’re getting paid and are guaranteed not to lose your job, you’re going to be more likely to go back to work.
Employers can do their part by ensuring that those at the top, including the CEO, set good examples for their employees with their company policies. “Since taking leave means people return to work, that’s good for productivity, increases output, and is good for the business,” says Hartmann. “It’s a win, win, win — helps workers, employers, and the economy.”
Also key? “Equal pay on the job and better access to higher paying jobs for women,” Hartmann says. Workers themselves can address the problem by being transparent about their salary (this goes for both men and women), and negotiating for better pay may help on an individual level, she suggests.