The Battle to Close Wage Gap Between Men and Women

Democratic National Committee women host an Equal Pay Day event with a lemonade stand “where women pay 79 cents per cup and men pay $1 per cup, to highlight the wage gap,” on April 12, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

“Lots of people have heard the 79 cents on a dollar that women make on average compared to men,” says Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center. But the level of salary loss for a woman starting her career today is staggering. “Nationally, a woman stands to lose about $430,000 over a 40-year career if we don’t take action to close the wage gap.”

An analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group shows that the numbers for women of color are even more egregious in comparison with the salaries of white, non-Hispanic men. For African-American women, the lifetime wage gap is $877,480. For Latina women, the gap is more than $1 million. NWLC, using numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, did an interactive map with state-by-state rankings. The largest gap, for both black and Latina women, is in the nation’s capital.


“For Latinas,” says Martin, NWLC’s general counsel and vice president for workplace justice, “it’s $1.8 million. For African-American women, it’s about $1.6 million.”

The study found that the widest lifetime wage gap for Asian-American women is in Alaska, where the spread is $1.2 million. The gap is over $1 million for African-American women in six states, including Louisiana. It’s more than $1 million for Native American women in 13 states, including California; for Latinas, it’s more than $1 million in 23 states, including New York and Texas. Why is the gap so large for women of color?

“For Latinas in particular, likely a primary reason for this is occupational segregation,” Martin explains. “Latinas are very overrepresented in a lot of low-wage jobs—for example, cleaning jobs. Latinas are 6.6 percent of the workforce overall, for example, but 15 percent of the low-wage workforce. On the other hand, Latinas are much underrepresented in the highest-paying jobs in the economy—for example, executives, attorneys, surgeons and engineers.”

She adds that white men are very overrepresented in high-paying jobs. Other causes for the wage gap are basic, such as the fact that women are still being paid less for doing the same work.


“When you see studies that control for all the things that should affect someone’s pay, like experience and how many hours they work and their education, there’s still a wage gap between men and women that is not explained,” Martin says. “Another cause of the gap is when women are parents or have other caregiving responsibilities. Often their income takes a hit … because their working conditions don’t allow them to succeed at work in the same way once they have caregiving responsibilities.”

One can see this on a daily basis in the restaurant industry, says Gaby Madriz, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United in Washington, D.C., and a former restaurant worker. Part of the reason for that, she says, is racism, citing a report issued by her nonprofit advocacy group.


“There’s a drastic lightening in shades when you go from the lowest-paying jobs to the highest-paying jobs,” Madriz explains. “The folks in the back of the house doing the cooking and the prep and the line cooks tend to be black and Latino folks, a lot of immigrants. … The chefs and the sous chefs tend to be white males.”

The optics are even clearer, she says, once you get to the front of the house.

“The folks that owners and managers are comfortable interacting with the public tend to be lighter-skinned. I think that’s racism, pretty loud and clear,” Madriz says angrily. “In an economy where a lot of folks with degrees don’t have jobs in the careers that they studied, they end up in the service industry. … So folks with degrees in higher education, who tend to be more white and affluent, end up in those positions as well, again disadvantaging a lot of immigrant women, women of color, with lesser education.”


The analysis was released pegged to Equal Pay Day, April 12, which marks how far into the year full-time female employees have to work to make what their male counterparts made in the prior year alone.

The wage-parity issue is on the radar at the White House, where President Barack Obama has made it a top priority. The first piece of legislation he signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. He has also created a National Equal Pay Task Force. On Equal Pay Day, Obama designated the new Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument to honor the movement for women’s equality.


Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have spoken forcefully in support of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has languished in Congress. Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, while talking about the struggles of single mothers, voted with his party to block that legislation in 2014. GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has said that women and men deserve equal pay for equal work, but he has also said, “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.”

Both Martin and Madriz say that there have been long-term lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, and NWLC’s Martin is encouraged that the presidential candidates are taking note of the issue. But there are other things, she says, that could be done.


“One is to strengthen our equal-pay laws, so if you are being paid less for the same work, there is a meaningful legal remedy,” Martin says. “Another is to raise wages for our lowest-paid workers, which is women. So, for example, raising the minimum wage is important to closing the wage gap.”

She adds that policy changes are needed to ensure that workers don’t take a financial hit when they are parents, and affordable child care would also help.


“Business[es] can make changes without being legally required to do it, and they should,” Martin says. “They should look at their pay practices to make sure there are not unjustified pay disparities between men and women.”

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