Closing the Wage Gap | EPI Viewpoints

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Closing the Wage Gap

by Heather Boushey

Imagine working without pay all day Monday and just before your Tuesday morning coffee break. Sounds ridiculous, right?

Unfortunately, it’s the reality for many women.

Because women working full-time earn, on average, 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, they work longer hours for the same paycheck. That’s why each year Equal Pay Day is observed on a Tuesday (April 3 this year). It is meant to promote renewed focus on the sharp gender inequality that persists in our workplaces today.

During the 1980s, the pay gap narrowed not because women made progress, but because men’s wages fell dramatically. Even as the economy heated up during the 1990s and women’s college attendance and completion rates surpassed men’s, the pay gap held steady. Among full-time, full-year workers, the gap peaked at 81 percent in 1993 and has hovered around that level ever since.

This pay gap is not due to differences in the skills and attributes that women and men bring to the labor market. The gap is the same for full-time workers who went to college as for those who didn’t.

Several policies have helped to close the wage gap as women and people of color moved into higher-paying jobs historically open only to white men.

The Equal Pay Act, passed in 1963, prohibits employers from paying a woman less than a man for doing the same job. The following year, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act expanded the scope of anti-discrimination protections to hiring, firing, promotion, and most other conditions of employment.

Affirmative Action was designed to go a step further, requiring government contractors and other employers to set formal goals to remedy the past underrepresentation of women and minority employees.

But it’s now clear that they’re not enough to close the gap completely.

It remains in part because of the high degree of segregation of women and men into different types of jobs. As a result, another policy approach, comparable worth, has drawn increased attention as a possible means for eliminating the wage penalty for working in a predominantly female occupation.

Occupations that have been historically dominated by women are often poorly paid compared to occupations that are dominated by men and that require comparable levels of skill and education — nursing, which requires high levels of education and certification, yet is underpaid — is one example.

The Fair Pay Act, introduced today by Eleanor Holmes-Norton in the House and Tom Harkin in the Senate, is comparable-worth legislation requiring that firms give equal pay to workers that have jobs with comparable skill requirements and responsibilities. Similar legislation has been introduced in 28 states and is pending in another three.

The proposed comparable-worth legislation could reduce the wage gap and help low-wage workers without creating an excessive burden for employers.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, a pending bill co-sponsored by Tom Daschle in the Senate and Rosa DeLauro in the House, would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to eliminate discrimination that leads to pay inequities by enhancing enforcement of equal pay requirements.

Millions of women across the United States work two jobs: mother and breadwinner. As mothers increasingly are working outside the home, such measures are needed now more than ever to help women balance work and family.

Equitable pay for married women would mean that their family incomes would rise by nearly six percent, and fewer families would live in poverty. For single working mothers, family incomes would increase by nearly 17 percent, and poverty rates for their families would be cut in half, from 25.3 percent to 12.6 percent.

Given how hard women work, the pay gap isn’t just too big — it’s ridiculous. It’s time to get serious about equal pay.

Heather Boushey is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.


See more work by Heather Boushey