If I had 80 cents for every time I saw an infographic with a drawing of a partial dollar bill proclaiming, “Women earn 80 cents for every dollar a man makes!” I would be decently rich. And if I earned a dollar for every time I saw a snarky comment on Facebook arguing that “the wage gap is a myth” because women work fewer hours and choose lower-paying professions, I’d have at least a thousand dollars.
Arguing over this statistic is missing the point, though; we’re stuck in an endless debate over the existence of a wage gap without considering the true root causes or finding solutions. In order to have a productive debate about wage inequality, it’s time we move past the “cents for every dollar” statistics and toward more nuanced explanations and descriptions of gender-based pay disparity.
To clarify, these “cents on the dollar” statistics are average full-time year-round wages for men and women. And yes, it is true, much of the gap between men and women (without accounting for race) can be explained by factors such as occupation and position within a given company. For example, when researchers looked at employees doing the same job for the same employer in 25 developed countries, factors other than gender explained most of the wage gap. (That is, controlling for a variety of attributes such as occupation and experience, women earn 98 cents for every dollar men earn.) In the United States, according to research conducted by Glassdoor, women earn 94.6 cents for every dollar earned by men. While getting paid less to do the exact same work is blatantly unfair, this outright discrimination in pay for men and women in similar positions accounts for only a small portion of wage disparities.
The purpose of wage gap statistics is to bring attention to the problem of wage disparities in a concise way, but using the wage gap as proof of inequality is problematic. Firstly, as I’ve established, these statistics are misleading; without context, they imply that women are paid significantly less than men to perform the same jobs. Even when political actors use misleading statistics, or even flat-out lies, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard.
Secondly, and more importantly, focusing on the wage gap leads us only to partial solutions, as statistics like “women earn 80 cents for every dollar men make” suggest that forcing employers to pay women equally will solve gender wage inequality. In the United States, many have focused on legislative fixes, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits unequal pay for equal work based on sex, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which extends the amount of time women have to file a complaint. Furthermore, some legislators have pushed for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would add procedural protections to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (though it has failed to pass Congress three times, most recently in 2014). Some states and municipalities have begun to prohibit employers from asking potential employees about previous pay, as this may reinforce past inequalities. These legislative fixes, aimed to ensure equal pay for equal work, are important, but only address a small portion of wage inequality.
Rather than only focusing on equal pay for equal work, it’s time to address the unexplained portion of the wage gap. Why don’t men and women do the same types of jobs, and why are male-dominated jobs higher-paying than female-dominated jobs? Why are women less likely to be promoted? These questions are more complicated and much harder to address, but are essential to solving gendered wage inequalities.
The largest factor is likely occupation: One study by Cornell researchers attributed 51 percent of the wage gap to occupational pay differences. Occupations dominated by women tend to have lower status and pay. For example, primary school teachers in high-income countries earn 81 percent of the average salary for jobs requiring a college degree. Moreover, when men enter occupations previously dominated by women, like computer programming, wages rise, but when women enter fields dominated by men, like biology, wages tend to fall. Childcare is also a large factor, as women are more likely to do the lion’s share of child-rearing and the opportunity for a critical first promotion often coincides with the time at which families begin to have children. Data from Britain and the United States show that in both countries, women’s pay falls behind men’s at the age when women typically have their first child.
Going forward, policymakers must go beyond legislation focused simply on equal pay and enact laws that help women overcome systemic obstacles as they seek fair pay. But when we attempt to communicate gender inequality in terms of cents on the dollar, all this nuance is lost. Gender inequality is real and we must find more nuanced and productive ways to talk about inequality to move toward the most effective solutions.
Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.