Why the Gender Pay Gap Has Persisted for Two Decades

5 minute read

A few years ago, I talked to a woman named Leah Ferrazzani who had founded an artisanal pasta company, and who turned down an opportunity to sell her brand nationwide. The reason? She had two young kids home, and she didn’t want to be flying all over the country selling pasta and miss them growing. Ferrazzani could have done it—her husband was up for the challenge—but, she says, “it didn’t feel right.”

Women across the U.S. make decisions like these every day because they want to pursue their careers and also be there for their families. A new Pew Research Center survey, published March 1, found that about two-thirds of working mothers with children in the household said they felt a great deal of pressure to focus on their responsibilities at home, compared to just 45% of working dads.

But they have taken a financial hit for this choice. In 2022, American women earned $0.82 for every $1.00 earned by men, not much more than the $0.80 they made on a man’s dollar in 2002, according to a Pew analysis of Current Population Survey data, also released on March 1.

“The pay gap is impacted by parenthood, which is entwined with the pressures women feel to take care of family responsibilities,” says Rakesh Kochhar, senior researcher at Pew. In the last decade, women ages 25 to 34 have gotten closer to wage parity with men, making about $0.90 to the dollar, according to the Pew analysis. But even today, as women reach their mid-to-late 30s—when, as a group, they are more likely to have children—the wage gap grows. That may be because women with children are discriminated against. It may be because they take a step back from their careers to focus on their families. It may be because once men become fathers, they start to actually earn more than men who aren’t fathers. Or it could be a combination of all three.

Read more: I Tried To Live Off Women-Run Businesses. Turns Out, Men Still Run Everything

This pay gap persists even though a higher share of women than men in the workforce hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, and even though more women are entering higher paying fields like law, finance, science, and engineering. (Women earned 53% of STEM college degrees in 2018, a separate Pew study found.)

For decades, women had been making progress in closing the pay gap, but something has happened in the last two decades to stall any more advancement. In 1982, women made $0.65 for every dollar earned by a man—by 2002, women earned $0.80 for every dollar earned by a man. But that progress halted with the turn of the 21st century, especially for educated women. In 2022, women with a bachelor’s degree earned 80% of what men did—just a sliver more than the 79% they earned in 2002. Women with less than a high school diploma, by contrast, earned 83% of what men did in 2022, compared to 80% in 2002.

“We need cultural change in the workplace,” says Ellen Cassedy, the founder of 9 to 5, the movement for working women that inspired the 1980s movie of the same name. When Cassedy founded the group in 1973, employers could still fire women for being pregnant, she says. (This was outlawed with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.) Today, there are many more legal protections for women who have children, but cultural change has not happened as quickly as Cassedy and other feminists expected. Fathers often don’t take paternity leave or do not take time off to care for their kids—and this even happens in Nordic countries that have generous paternity leave. In the U.S., the majority of men take less than 10 days away from the job when their children are born.

One reason that wage convergence slowed could be the introduction of generous parental leave policies, according to an economics paper released in January. The paper looked at the wage gap in all 50 states and D.C. before and after parental leave policies were introduced (mostly with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, but some states already had their own policies.) If such policies had not been introduced, the study authors argue, white women would have made as much as all men by 2017.

Which reminds me of something else that occurred to me while I was talking to the pasta-maker Leah Ferrazzani. More women than men take maternity leave and time off to care for their kids because they have to go through the physically arduous task of childbirth—the economics paper found that white women take four times as much leave as men after they give birth to or adopt a child. As the Pew study shows, many women also feel more of a responsibility to take care of their kids and their families—there’s a whole literature on Mom Guilt that has popped up in recent years. Money magazine even argued in 2017 that mom guilt is the “single biggest factor” that holds back U.S. womens’ careers.

But as Ferrazzani found, it’s not so easy to just focus on your career and shrug off that urge to be with your children as much as you can. Maybe you feel bad leaving them for a few nights a week. Maybe you just enjoy being with them. Right now, that’s not usually okay to say at work—especially if you are going to be asking for more responsibilities or more pay. Increasingly, in many workplaces, it’s not even okay for moms to say they’d rather work remotely so that they can spend time with their kids rather than commuting. Maybe someday it will be.

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