The most recent statistics available suggest that women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. There are countless stories of women doing the same job as men but being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars less despite being at the top of their industry. Though the conversation has mostly been closed in the past regarding salaries and the wage gap, it is an issue that has existed all throughout American history.
Here is an informational video on the gender wage gap to provide more context on the issue.
Gender discrimination in the workplace has been a part of America since the beginning of time. As a woman, this inequality affects me deeply both now, and in the future when I will join the workforce; a workforce where I hope will have equal rights and receive equal pay. I want to discover the specific reasons behind the stable wage gap between men and women, and what can be done to shift both the laws regarding equal pay, and as the mindset that led to it in the first place.
Another personal connection I have with my problem is watching my mother build her career. She has experienced gender discrimination for 30 years in the workforce and is now a senior executive at a successful company.
I talked to my mom about her experience with the wage gap. She explained, “our family income has suffered because of me being underpaid in my career. The wage gap used to be much worse when I started working in 1986. When no one even expected the women to make as much as the men. It was accepted that if there were a man and woman doing the same job, the woman would make less and that was normal.” The law passed in January of 2018 in California had a huge impact on her when she changed jobs and the benefits were lucrative. The law passed last January states that employers are no longer able to ask job applicants about their current or prior salaries. Employers also have to provide the pay scale for a position upon a job applicant’s request (Nagele-Piazza). This forced my mom’s future employers to guess the value of her work and offer her what they thought she would accept.
Despite being aware of how far we’ve come in terms of equality in the workforce, it is still very unfair for women, and I believe we must continue to spread awareness and come up with new ways to promote change and push for fairness so that progress continues.
In the beginning of early American history, the woman’s role was taking care of the home, cooking, cleaning, and raising the children. Some women worked in the fields as slaves, but there was no pay for their labor. Alice Kessler-Harris, a professor of American History at Columbia University, stated in an interview, “ the workplace was imagined as part of the household. One could not separate them” (Farmer).
In the 1700s and 1800s, women’s role shifted and progress began to be made towards equality in the workforce. In 1769, American colonies based their laws on the English common law which said, “by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law. The very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything.” However, in 1789, when the United States Constitution was ratified, the terms “persons,” “people” and “electors” were used, allowing the interpretation to include men and women (“Detailed Timeline”). The most progress during this time period was shown in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention where 300 women and men signed the Declaration of Sentiments, a document requesting the end of discrimination against women in all spheres of society (History 10 Class Notes). The Civil War from 1861-1865 was also a time of change for the role of women in the workplace, as more women began to work, and discover a sliver of the sense of freedom in working that they had not known before.
As a result of the majority of American men going off to fight in the war, women were encouraged, and even required to join the workforce to make up for the lack of workers. Many women also entered the workforce in order to adequately provide for their families. However, despite labor unions like The Knights of Labor supporting equal pay for women, women had a lower minimum wage rate than men, and had to balance their family life on top of their already lowered wage. In addition, when the war ended and the men returned home, women were once again pushed out of the workforce and forced to return back to their assigned role of solely caring for the home and family (Shah). While acknowledgment of the problem was a significant first step, not much change occurred until the 1900s.
Women’s role in the workforce changed most substantially during the 20th century as a result of the increasing awareness of the problem of gender discrimination and actions of activists. One considerable milestone in the 1900s was the economic depression that hit America during the 1930s. Men and women gave the argument that “if women would just get out of the labor force, they thought, the unemployment rate would drop for men as they took over women’s jobs” (Farmer). Nonetheless, employment for women continued to climb and a job with a steady wage became a necessity even for married women (Farmer). This demonstrated the shifting cultural view of women in the workforce and demanded recognition that women had a permanent place in the workplace and would no longer be confined to caring for the home. To reflect this shift, in 1938, The Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage without regard to sex (“Detailed Timeline”).
World War II, from 1939-1945, was also a time when women began to take over the workforce. “Employers desperately needed women to replace the men who were drafted and to staff the industries making war products” (Farmer). To convince them to enter the labor force, businesses created child care centers, laundries, cooked meals that could be brought home to allow women to work while keeping their households running smoothly (Farmer). Although these resources for women disappeared immediately after the men returned home after the war, women learned they could work a professional job that had typically been male-dominated, while maintaining a functional household (Shah).
Another key event was the passing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by Congress which promises equitable wages for men and women (Pearsall). This was soon followed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, or sex (Farmer). Overall, the 1900s was incredibly positive for women’s rights and equality in the workplace. Women established the right to vote, better working conditions, higher wages, and also standard work hours.
Though men and women are still not equal when their roles are compared in the present day American workforce, women’s roles have undoubtedly made enormous progress towards matching those of men, and they continue to take steps in the right direction. In 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act was passed. This act allows victims of pay discrimination, usually women, to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck (“Detailed Timeline”). Despite this, in 2016, women working full time in the US were still paid only 80% of what men were paid. Discrimination in the workforce still has a ways to go before we can reach equality.
A New York Times article drew from a number of studies including one done by researchers at Cornell University and concluded that the main reason for the wage gap is that work done by women simply isn’t valued as highly as work done by men (Safronova). Business Insider wrote an article about the gender pay gap and included an interview with Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard University who has spent years researching gender economics. The article summarizes Goldin’s findings: “focusing on individuals in the top 105 occupations with an average annual compensation of more than $60,000, Goldin found that men almost always out-earned women. When classifying these jobs in categories like Business and Finance, Health, Science, and Technology, Goldin saw a larger gender earnings gap in Business and Finance occupations, where full-time, full-year working women earned about 78 cents on their male counterpart’s dollar than in Technology and Science, where, when combined, women earned closer to 89 cents on a man’s dollar… For Goldin, pay parity isn’t so much about fighting outright discrimination or fixing differences in competitive drive or bargaining ability, nor does she think it has to involve government intervention. Closing the gender wage gap involves changing how jobs are structured and remunerated in a way that enhances flexible work schedules” (Gillett).
(“The Gender Wage Gap: Women, Work & Wage Inequality”).
(“AAUW Issues: Gender Pay Gap”).
By law, there should be no pay gap or discrimination between men and women according to the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which promises equitable wages for men and women (Pearsall). This Act was followed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, or sex (Farmer). However, gender inequality continues even today. One solution that I think would benefit women is empowering the human resources departments of companies to implement new strategies that allow HR to monitor the salaries of men and women on a regular basis at each level of management to ensure equal treatment, and to reinforce previous acts passed regarding equality.
Another possible solution is raising the federal minimum wage. Women made up approximately two-thirds of all minimum-wage workers in 2012, and raising the minimum wage can help women in all occupations to better support their families. A third solution is creating an affordable, high-quality child care service and early childhood education. For parents of young children, particularly low-income families, the lack of affordable, high-quality early childhood programs can prevent working parents from ensuring that their families are cared for while they fulfill the demands of their jobs and continue to progress in their career. Pushing through proposed legislation like the Strong Start for America’s Children Act (Glynn). This bill directs the Department of Education to give grants to states and subgrants to local educational agencies including childhood education program providers so they can implement high-quality prekindergarten programs for children from low-income families (Murray and Patty). Investing in high-quality affordable childcare provides a service to educate children, and supports women by increasing their ability to keep a job, excel in the workforce, and lower the gender wage gap (Glynn). These solutions could be good first steps for both legally encouraging the end of gender discrimination in the workplace, and for shifting the mindset associated with it that preserves a bias against women.
There are a few different perspectives held by experts on the gender wage gap including that it is non-existent, that it is a choice made by women, or that it is a result of gender discrimination. Some believe that the wage gap is a myth and women simply don’t work as hard or as many hours as men. People who argue that it is a choice say that women tend to lean towards humanities and liberal arts fields which are lower paying jobs, women commonly choose a different lifestyle where family and taking care of relatives takes precedence over their career and they experience something called “the motherhood penalty”. Others believe the wage gap is based on mainly gender discrimination and men feeling entitled to the jobs and taking advantage of the fact that they can pay women less for doing the same job (Mitchin).
As mindset on gender discrimination continues to shift, the gap will continue to close. An acknowledgment of the issue by all genders can play a large role in speeding up the closure. That awareness can help to enforce the acts put in to help close the gap, as well as develop new ideas on how to spread awareness and level the playing field in the workforce for all genders.
(TEDxTalks. “Close the Gender Pay Gap | Jo Cribb | TEDxWellington”).
Black, Kate. “Young Women and Equal Pay: A Call For Action.” American Women, 12 Apr. 2016, www.americanwomen.org/news/young-women-and-equal-pay-a-call-for-action.
“Detailed Timeline.” National Womens History Project,
Farmer, Ashley. “The Clayman Institute for Gender Research.” A Historical View of the American Workplace | The Clayman Institute for Gender Research, The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, 25 Feb. 2014, gender.stanford.edu/news/2014/historical-view-american-workplace.
Glynn, Sarah Jane, et al. “7 Actions That Could Shrink the Gender Wage Gap.” Center for American Progress, www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2014/09/18/97421/7-actions-that-could-shrink-the-gender-wage-gap/.
Mitchin, Kyle. “Gender Wage Gap and the Impact on Society.” TED-Ed, ed.ted.com/on/SNpczpn5.
Murray, and Patty. “S.1380 – 114th Congress (2015-2016): Strong Start for America’s Children Act of 2015.” Congress.gov, 19 May 2015, www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/1380.
Pearsall, Beth. “50 Years after the Equal Pay Act, Parity Eludes Us.” AAUW: Empowering
Women Since 1881, 18 Mar. 2013, www.aauw.org/article/50-years-after-the-equal-pay-act-parity-eludes-us/.
Safronova, Valeriya. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Pay Inequity.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/business/wage-gap-gender-discrimination.html.
Shah, Dhara. “The Evolution of Women in the Workforce (1865-2015.” The Evolution of Women
in the Workforce (1865-2015), Apr. 2015, workingwomen.web.unc.edu/.
“5 Key California Handbook Updates for 2018.” SHRM, 8 Jan. 2018, www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/state-and-local-updates/pages/california-employee-handbook-updates-2018.aspx.
Plumb, Emma. “The Gender Pay Gap: An Interview with Harvard Economist Claudia Goldin.”1 Million for Work Flexibility, 15 Nov. 0AD, www.workflexibility.org/gender-pay-gap-interview-economist-claudia-goldin/.
TEDxTalks. “Close the Gender Pay Gap | Jo Cribb | TEDxWellington.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy1pvgChJn4&feature=youtu.be.