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It's been a decade since the Fair Pay Act — why is there still a gender gap?

Despite recent gains for women across sectors, the gender pay gap — or the difference in what women are paid compared to men — is stubbornly persistent.
Illustration of woman jumping on broken bill
American women who work full-time are paid approximately 82 cents to every dollar earned by men, and that's only half the story.Katty Huertas / TODAY / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

More than 10 years ago, the Obama administration signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which mandated that employers must pay their employees equally regardless of their sex. Since signing the act, progress has arguably been made for the advancement of women’s rights across sectors. More women attend and graduate from four-year colleges and universities than men. Women make up half of the labor force. And Congress has its highest representation of women in history, with female delegates making up a full 25% of the House (which shows a 50% increase from 2010). Yet despite these gains, the gender pay gap — or the difference in what women are paid compared to men — is stubbornly persistent.

The gender pay gap refers to the historical and present-day systemic disparities in pay between men and women. The American Association of University Women reports that American women who work full-time are paid approximately 82 cents to every dollar earned by men. Halle Tecco, president and chief women’s health officer at Natalist, a fertility and pregnancy product company, specifies that when it comes to the gender pay gap, “There are two numbers you will hear about: the salary difference across all industries, and the difference in pay for the same job (the adjusted gender pay gap). Across industries, historically women-dominated fields, such as teaching or nursing, have decades of suppressed wages. But we also see systemic issues within industries, and know that women on average make less for the same exact job as a man.”

Even when accounting for these differences, the widely cited statistic of 82 cents to the dollar only tells a fraction of the story. When one accounts for the intersections of race and gender, the disparities in the gender pay gap are even more stark.

“Between 1980 and 2015, Black women narrowed the wage gap with white men by nine whole cents. Latinas are even worse off, having narrowed the wage gap by an entire nickel in 35 years,” Koa Beck notes in her 2021 book "White Feminism." “Change in gender politics hasn’t come fast. For many women it hasn’t come at all.”

This points to the necessity of using an intersectional framework to analyze how forms of inequality compound to widen the gap. So, for example, the gender pay gap is often broadly characterized as the discrepancies in pay between a cisgender white woman and a cisgender white man. This pay gap might play out very differently if, for example, we were examining the discrepancies in pay between a cisgender white man and a Black transgender woman.

While it is important for individuals to know their value and negotiate their salary, narrowing the gender pay gap is not a simple matter of “leaning in.”

“A nefarious and enduring pattern I've noticed … [in] reporting on the wage gap is that the default is to focus on straight white women in the professional workplace … and then throw in the data on Black women, Latinas, Native women, Asian-American women, etc. at the end," Beck notes. "Meanwhile, queer women and specifically women who are masculine of center or gender nonconforming or trans aren't acutely factored into this narrative either, and it limits the way we internalize, or arguably don't, realities like the queer hunger crisis in the United States or overall queer poverty rates.” As Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, wrote in a 2019 article, “Time and time again, the experiences of white communities are used as the framework from which to understand inequality, and yet the communities experiencing inequality from a range of factors, all at the same time, are communities of color.”

Both Beck and Garza are pointing to incomplete examination of the gender pay gap. Yet, this cisgender binary is often the default, and it’s used to justify the one-dimensional narrative of women in the workplace as “girl bosses” who just have to "lean in" to the hustle and grind. This narrative puts the onus on individual women to take charge of their own professional development. They have to ask for what they’re worth. They have to do their wage research. They have to negotiate hard. Recent memes have flippantly advised women to negotiate for their salaries “with the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

This is a decidedly individualistic critique of the gender pay gap. While it is important for individuals to know their value and negotiate their salary, narrowing the gender pay gap is not a simple matter of “leaning in.” By using this narrative, we ignore the structural shortcomings that have created and sustained these wage gaps, and have compounded their impact for women of color or women with other identity markers. For example, the “motherhood penalty,” which stems from the lack of universal child care or paid maternity leave, can force a woman’s hand to choose a family or career (but not both). The recent COVID-related exodus of women from the workforce speaks to the precariousness of our foothold; when the structures of support (like a lack of reliable child care) fall apart, women don’t have the ability to “lean in.”

Beck also notes that much of the reliable child care or domestic work that allows women to “lean in” falls on women of color, which augments racial stratification in the gender pay gap. Beck says: “I find the unquestioned celebration of women in white-collar roles often obscures the underpaid care work, often by women, that probably got them there. So a pre-pandemic press narrative that reports women assuming more leadership roles or narrowly closing a wage gap in a specific industry doesn't take into account the low-income nannies, cleaners or care workers who also contributed to the obtainment of that leadership position … I don't find this to be coincidental, considering that the women who often perform this labor are of color, low-income and/or immigrants”.

The AAUW notes that the consequences of the gender pay gap haunt women for their lives. Women hold nearly two-thirds of outstanding student loan debt in the United States, with Black women holding the highest rates of undergraduate debt across racial and gender categories. The AAUW also reports that the pay gap extends beyond the years that women spend in the workforce and impacts their retirement as well: “Because they have earned less and therefore paid less in the Social Security system, they receive less in Social Security benefits. They also lag behind men in pension benefits and all other sources of retirement income.”

Taking the necessary steps to close the gender pay gap requires individual, organizational and societal shifts. On an individual level, Natalist CEO Vernita Brown says we must “teach girls to advocate for themselves — this can carry over to them being women who know how to negotiate for higher job offers.” On an organizational level, companies need to think about greater inclusivity in the recruiting and hiring process; Brown says that it’s essential that “POC can see themselves and are encouraged to bring non-mainstream values and assets to the table.” Companies can also create more equitable hiring policies to attempt to mitigate the gender pay gap.

But we also must advocate for change at the structural level to address the systemic disparities that augment the gender pay gap. Massachusetts recently filed the Common Start bill, which would create and subsidize universal child care and after-school programs for Massachusetts families. Families that earn below 50% of the state’s median income would pay nothing for this benefit. It is only when we advocate for individual, organizational and structural change that we can begin to narrow the gender pay gap for everyone.