Tuesday, April 10, is Equal Pay Day in the United States. Advocates designated the day to mark how much longer women must work, on average, to earn as much as men averaged in the previous year.
Germany recognized Equal Pay Day on March 10. The Czech Republic will observe it on April 13. While assigning a date to the gender pay gap is a way to make a point, it makes for an easy gauge of whether the pay gap is getting worse or better from one year to the next. In 2017, the U.S. Equal Pay Day was April 4 — meaning the pay gap is slightly worse this year than last.
There are a number of explanations for historic gender gaps in pay.
One of the major ones is known as "occupational segregation," meaning a particular job is seen as "men's work" or "women's work" and is dominated by that gender. In a study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research in 2017, among the most common occupations for women and for men in the United States, only six occupations overlap.
In the fields that pay best, men tend to dominate, said the IWPR's Chandra Childers. She adds that when men start to leave a field and women start to move in, the average pay for that field begins to drop.
Some say the pay gap is due to more women taking time off work or assuming less demanding professional roles so they can care for their families. "Women often choose lower-paying jobs that are closer to home and have better, more flexible hours," conservative commentator Carrie Lukas said in an April 4 column for Forbes.
Childers says she hears that argument often. But "when you look at the pay gap," she said, "a lot of it is because women are concentrated in low-wage service jobs. Many of these jobs are not flexible. They're not family friendly," and they are less likely to have paid family leave.
The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that advocates for low- and middle-income workers, found in April 2017 that women are paid less than their male colleagues in almost every occupation, regardless of whether that occupation is traditionally held by men or women. The average wage for preschool and kindergarten teachers was $16.33 per hour for men, and $14.42 per hour for women. Male nurse practitioners made $42.74 an hour, compared to $37.50 per hour for female nurse practitioners. Male software developers made $38.98 an hour, while women software developers made an average $33.65 an hour.
Hollywood has recently gotten much attention for starkly different salaries paid to women and men working on the same project. To highlight this point, several high-profile actresses turned up at this year's Academy Awards ceremony with women's rights activists as their dates.
Actress Meryl Streep brought Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers' Alliance. Poo used the opportunity to talk about how attitudes toward women — including those behind the sexual harassment scandal wracking the entertainment industry — affect pay levels at both the bottom of the income scale and the top.
"Equal Pay Day looks different in the #MeToo moment," Poo said in a column in In Style magazine on April 4. "Each #MeToo story amplified the voice of a woman who has been underpaid, shut out, harassed, assaulted, undermined, ignored, or threatened. We can see clearly how it is that women are paid less when the gender discrimination that leads to the wage gap is exposed."
Poo goes on to say that pay inequality and sexual harassment are "inextricably linked. They are both the result of a culture in which women's lives and contributions are devalued."
Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer recently told People magazine how she and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain teamed up for a tiny experiment in collective bargaining, a tool activists recommend to fight against unfair compensation practices. The two women told producers that they would only take the roles if they were paid the same amount. Spencer — the Oscar winner — said she ended up making five times the amount she had expected for the film.
Women also face tough hurdles in the technology sector. A survey by the job-hunting website Hired.com showed that 63 percent of the time, men were offered higher salaries than women for the same role at the same company. The differences in starting pay for the same job ranged from 4 percent to 45 percent.
Notably, the Hired survey found that 54 percent of the women it surveyed said they had found out at some point in their careers that they were making less money than a man with the same job. Only 19 percent of men had had the same experience.
Equal-pay supporters say the benefit of equal pay is not just confined to the individual earners; it also benefits the employer and the community in which it is based.
Power to employees
There's no silver bullet, says Jessica Schieder of the Economic Policy Institute, but an important tool in the fight for equal pay is transparency.
"You can't know you're underpaid and have a problem until that information is available," Schieder said. She also recommends collective bargaining, a higher minimum wage, and any other tools that give employees more power. The social taboo against talking about personal income, she says, is not helpful either.
Jess Morales Rocketto of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and We Belong Together, a feminist campaign for immigration reform, says there is one other idea that can't be overlooked. "There's nothing more powerful than women coming together. … In the next 10 years, I want to see us close the pay gap. But also, I want ALL working people to be covered by our labor laws. And I want women at every level of public office.
"Our job is to address all forms of gender inequality to ensure that no woman, regardless of where she's from, is left behind," she said.