Equal Pay Day: There has been little progress in closing the gender wage gap

March 15 is Equal Pay Day, a reminder that there is still a significant pay gap between men and women in our country. The date represents how far into 2022 women would have to work to be paid the same amount that men were paid in 2021. Women were paid 22.1% less on average than men in 2021, after controlling for race and ethnicity, education, age, and geographic division.

What’s particularly troubling is there has been little progress in closing the gender wage gap over much of the last three decades, as shown in the figure below. The regression-adjusted pay gap narrowed between 1979 and 1994—falling from a 37.7% pay penalty to a 23.2% pay penalty. But the entirety of the narrowing gap between 1979 and 1994 can be attributed to men’s stagnant wages, not a tremendous increase in women’s wages. Since then, the gap between men’s and women’s pay has narrowed hardly at all. In 2021, the pay gap remained at 22.1%.


Little to no progress in closing the gender wage gap in three decades: Regression-adjusted gender wage gap, 1979–2021

Date Regression-adjusted gender wage gap
1979 37.7%
1980 36.8%
1981 35.7%
1982 34.5%
1983 33.4%
1984 33.1%
1985 32.8%
1986 32.6%
1987 31.9%
1988 31.2%
1989 28.6%
1990 27.3%
1991 25.6%
1992 24.1%
1993 23.3%
1994 23.2%
1995 24.1%
1996 23.4%
1997 23.8%
1998 23.4%
1999 24.0%
2000 23.9%
2001 23.2%
2002 22.5%
2003 22.3%
2004 22.6%
2005 22.1%
2006 22.4%
2007 22.8%
2008 22.7%
2009 22.5%
2010 21.3%
2011 20.7%
2012 22.0%
2013 21.4%
2014 21.2%
2015 21.7%
2016 21.9%
2017 21.6%
2018 22.6%
2019 22.6%
2020 23.0%
2021 22.1%
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Notes: Wages are adjusted into 2021 dollars by the CPI-U-RS. The regression-based gap is based on average wages and controls for gender, race and ethnicity, education, age, and geographic division. The log of the hourly wage is the dependent variable.

Source: Author’s analysis of Current Population Survey, Outgoing Rotation Group (CPS-ORG), 1979–2021, and Economic Policy Institute, Current Population Survey Extracts, Version 1.0.26 (2022), https://microdata.epi.org/, 1979–2022. 

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Over this period of pay gap stagnation, women have consistently increased their investments in education to increase their pay. Back in 1994, as progress toward closing the gender wage gap stalled, men were more likely to have a college or advanced degree than women. A quarter of men (25.1%) had at least a four-year college degree compared with 23.8% of women. By 2021, women’s educational attainment had surpassed men’s educational attainment. In 2021, 37.4% of men and 43.8% of women had at least a college degree. Unfortunately, even with these advances in educational attainment, women still face a stark pay gap. Women with advanced degrees are paid less, on average, than men with bachelor’s degrees.

There is no silver bullet to solving pay equity, but rather a menu of policy options that can close not only the gender pay gap but also gaps by race and ethnicity. These include requiring federal reporting of pay by gender, race, and ethnicity; prohibiting employers from asking about pay history; requiring employers to post pay bands when hiring; and adequately staffing and funding the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission and other agencies charged with enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.

We also need policies that lift wages for most workers while also reducing gender and racial/ethnic pay gaps, such as running the economy at full employment, raising the federal minimum wage, and protecting and strengthening workers’ rights to bargain collectively for higher wages and benefits.