Incrising Gender Wage Gap

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Throughout history, the gender wage gap in the United States, as well as other countries, has remained a constant controversial issue. The gender wage gap is defined as a ratio between the median wages of women and men expressed as a percentage. This ratio is a measure of inequality and can reveal possible causes, such as worker education and experience, to help explain the lasting gap in gender wages. Women, on average, have earned less than men in nearly every single occupation across the world since they have entered the workforce.

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Although the gap in pay has been narrowing since 1980, it has remained almost stable over the past 15 years continuing to make it a current social inequality (Graf, N., Brown, A., & Patten, E.,2018).

Since the beginning of history, women have gone through countless struggles and battles to prove their equal worth in the workforce as well as society. In the United States, before the Civil War, women’s sole job and responsibility was to be a housewife and mother while their husbands worked. Things started to change post-Civil war when newly freed African American women started to enter the workforce, later encouraging immigrants and middle class white women to start working too. Jobs were segregated by gender and routine repetitive work which was labeled as “women’s work.” During this time in the 19th century, the jobs that women were able to obtain involved hazardous working conditions, long working hours daily, and had a minimum wage rate which was lower than men (Shah, D.,2015). During World War I, women got their first opportunity to enter the workforce after some American men left to go fight in the war. These women had jobs such as typing or sewing and work related to “traditionally female professions.” Shortly after the war was over, the men wanted their jobs back which forced most women to either leave the workforce or settle for a less qualified job (Shah, D.,2015) During the 20th century when World War II started, the workforce dynamic for women dramatically changed for both the type of work they did and the volume at which they did it (Khan Academy, 2016).

A significant portion of male citizens left to fight in the war, giving an estimated five million women the chance to branch out into jobs they’ve never performed before and the option to work in professional jobs that were once male dominated. Women made up 24% of the workforce before World War II, and by 1945 it was increased to 37% (U.S. National Park Service,2016) Even though these women were completing the same work as the men, they were continued to be paid less. These women also faced many challenges in overcoming cultural and social stereotypes as well as finding child care during working hours. Although they faced issues in the workforce, women excelled at their new jobs and, for some, were earning a wage for the first time. Their newly sense of independence and freedom that was felt was taken back once the millions of men returned from war and the women were asked to leave their jobs. Women were still able to obtain jobs, such as secretaries or waitresses, which were often referred to as the “pink collar” work force. These jobs were dramatically less challenging and were not well paid, but women were essentially forced to take them because they were the only ones available to them.

Post-World War II, over 90 percent of women wanted to continuing working, but few of them continued to be employed. This war opened up a new opportunity for working women by giving them a full glimpse of the world they were being excluded from. This caused a shift in society when women were motivated and encouraged from their jobs during the war and wanted to be offered more than just “female professions.” Women started to discover their worth and the job openings offered to them didn’t prove to attract their interest. The self-confidence and determination that was built while being employed during the war, pushed these women to further fight to be treated equally. Although it was a slow process, women were gradually entering the workforce into jobs they’ve never been able to perform before. This was occurring during the “Baby boom” era where there was a significant increase of the birth rate in the United States, resulting from men returning home from the war. Women continued to fight to work after childbearing, and wanted to remain included in the workforce. In 1942, the National War Labor Board advocated equal pay for equal work and was later proposed in 1945. This was a significant step in helping women to gain more rights in society and a chance to prove their equal worth to the men. Many companies were outraged by the efforts of women to be included and would only hire men, even if they have previously hired women during the war. Companies that did employ women, reclassified their jobs and lowered their pay even if men were completing the same work.

The 1950s to the late 1960s was a confusing time for women in the workforce because they didn’t know their role in society. About one in three women were actively participating in the labor force (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000).Working mothers didn’t know their expectations and struggled with trying to balance family and work life. Women were still facing discrimination in the workforce and continued to be paid less than men. During this time several bills were proposed to Congress to address pay equality, but none were approved. By the 1960s, women were still being paid 58.9% of what men were earning. Women weren’t given the chance to move up in the labor force because job advertisements were listed by sex and most high-salary positions were allocated to men.

In 1961, activist Esther Peterson was the head of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor and urged President Kennedy to establish the Presidential Commission on the Status of women whose goal was to achieve equality. After she was able to build coalitions to help support her and gather data, Peterson submitted a draft bill of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 during Kennedy’s administration to Congress. This draft quickly gained supporters after it was revised from “equal pay for comparable work” to “equal work” which referred to jobs requiring equal skill, effort and responsibility (U.S. National Park Service, 2016). Several businesses opposed the bill, such as U.S Chamber of Commerce, claiming it was more expensive to employ women than men. These expenses involved rest periods, longer time for meals, and separate toilets. The overall participation rate of women in the workforce continued to rise as the bill gained more attention rising to 37% during the 1960s. In 1963, President Kennedy passed the “Equal Pay Act” which made it illegal to pay different wages to men and women who performed the same work. The following year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed to further strengthened the laws for gender equality and made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, national origin, and sex. This was a victorious moment for women in history and one of the major first steps toward equal pay giving them hope for the future. Although the act was supposed to solve the gender wage gap, it still existed because the type of jobs women were performing required a lower skill level then those performed by men.

It was during the 1970s, when women started to fully enter the workforce again. More women started to get jobs because they couldn’t support their families with a single-income household. Women were still essentially being forced into jobs that included secretary work, bookkeepers, and teachers because most men had “more experience” then they did. Even though the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963, women were still only earning 59.4 % of a males wage, which was only a .5% increase since 1960.(3) In 1971, The U.S Department of Labor set rules which required government contractors to promote positive action towards the discrimination toward women in the workforce. Unions, as well as other organizations, began to advocate for women promoting equal pay, opportunity, and fair treatment between male and female employees. With the help from these external sources, women began to have access to jobs that have been previously been denied to them.

The period of 1970s to the 1980s marks the biggest growth in the female participation rate in the labor force in American history. Women were making historical strides to prove their worth, but they continued to be underrepresented in many specific professions and overrepresented in others. The ratio of women’s to men’s earnings was increasing and rose to 63% in 1979. Since the 1960s, women’s participation rate in the labor force continued to increase every decade and from then on has been consistently decreasing continuing to today. Although the women’s rate has continued to decline, the difference between the participation rates of men and women has been steadily decreasing since the 1970s. The wage gap has continued to narrow between men and women throughout the late 20th century, but at a very slow rate. By 2010, women were earning 77.1% of men’s earnings, increasing to only 80.5% in 2017.

It has been fifty six years since President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, and women today are still fighting for pay equality. Throughout the decades, women have been faced with endless hurdles and fights in attempts to achieve their goal for equal pay. Along with their fight, there have been numerous bills that were made into laws to help women achieve their goal, but still didn’t solve the persistent gender wage gap. The gender pay gap can be explained by many factors, such as discrimination and occupational segregation, that women have been struggling with for decades.

Discrimination has been one of the leading causes of the gender wage gap throughout the United States history. Since before the Civil War, our society had created an atmosphere where men were the superior sex and women were viewed as secondary. As society evolved and adapted to the changing times, the gender wage gap continued to remain persistent showing women were still being treated unfairly. In 2017, a Research Center survey showed about four in ten working women said that have experienced gender discrimination at work compared to two out of ten people for working men (Graf, N., Brown, A., & Patten, E ,2018). The most common form of discrimination reported from these women focused on earnings inequality. Women have also been discriminated in the workplace by being differentially allocated to certain occupations. One driving factor contributing to this is in the embedded workplace norms and practices that have been used for decades which support the existing gender hierarchy weighed towards men.

Family caregiving responsibilities is one cause of the gender wage gap occurring in America. In 2013, a survey reported 40% of working mothers have taken a significant amount of time off to care for a family member while just 24% of working men had to do the same (Graf, N., Brown, A., & Patten, E.,2018). These responsibilities and expectations that are put on working mothers cause them to interrupt their careers which later have a major impact on their earnings. Women are often pushed more towards lower-paid careers because they are expected to balance the challenges of parenthood and work, making them less likely to fight for equal wages. Working women have proven to significantly reduce their hours or simply quit their jobs when they became mothers, while their husbands continued working. While there is no issue with being a stay at home mom, the stereotypes declared throughout our country ultimately force women to leave their jobs to care for their families, while their husbands make the income. When these mothers leave work, their level of skill and expiernce is affected which is later used as an excuse to be paid less. Situations like these set our country back decades from the endless work that women have contributed to be treated equally as men.

Although Congress has enacted laws to prohibit wage discrimination based on gender, they have failed to accomplish their intended goals. The Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act both aimed to close the gender wage gap and to help end the discrimination towards both women and men. These laws would be extremely useful to the citizens of the United States if they were strengthened. Currently, these laws are difficult to enforce because employers use a variety of affirmative defenses, such as seniority or quality of production, to justify the difference in the wages. When employers use these defenses in their case, it makes it extremely difficult for a woman to prove and win the case because the employers reasons are legally valid. Filing a suit under the Equal Pact Act is an extremely long process and can be very expensive which further more limits and discourages women to fight for their equal pay.

Another common issue that contributes to the gender wage gap is simply the lack of self-confidence that women have at their jobs. Women are less likely to negotiate their salary or raises, which can significantly impact the pay gap in higher earning fields. A study from Harvard found women who chose to hold back from negotiating in the workplace has proven to be more beneficial to them because they could ruin their social reputation. Repeated studies have shown women are often nervous to speak up in the workplace because the social cost of negotiating for higher pay is greater than it is for men. If women do speak up, they run the risk of a social backlash and a hostile workplace which could lead to further discrimination for women and have a major disadvantage on their long-term.

The Gender Wage gap is an on-going issue not only in the United States, but the pay disparities extend to numerous other countries. Most countries have worked on successfully narrowing the wage gap from what it once was, but the gap remains persistent. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a “forum where the governments of 34 democracies with market economies meet to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world” (Delfino, D, 2018) Korea has the largest gender wage gap on the OECD’s list with the average woman earning 65.4% of a man’s salary resulting in a 34.6% wage gap (Delfino, D.,2018)

This social injustice of unequal pay that women have been suffering for decades has slowly narrowed, but they continue to fight for pay equality until they achieve their goal. There are many ways both the citizens and the government can contribute to help women solve the pay disparities. Increased gender equality in the school environments for children has proven to have a strong positive effect on the economic growth and will help prevent children from being pressured by stereotypes as they grow older. For example, teachers can focus on encouraging both boys and especially girls to pursue science, engineering and math courses as well as to seek employment in those fields. If women and families had access to good and affordable childcare they would be able to return to work sooner and a key factor towards promoting a more gender equality in employment. Outdated norms that are still practiced in our current society, such as majority of housework and caring for children left responsible for the women, needs to be changed as well to offer equal support in families allowing women to return to work. Companies need to also change their policies and start mandating to include paternal leave as well to allow families the support they need.

The gender wage gap has been a reoccurring issue that women have suffered from since they first entered the workforce in the 19th century. In countless countries across the globe, almost all women are earning less then men in every single occupation. Women have fought endlessly to close the gender wage gap and fight for equality, but ultimately still lie defeated as they continue their fight into another decade. Men continue to make up an overwhelming majority of the top earners across the United States and other countries even though women represent over half of the workforce. Governments need to strengthen their laws as well as create new ones to support equality and to help end the everlasting fight to end the pay disparities. Until our society forces change and allow the support both women and families need women will continue to sacrifice their wage because of their gender.


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Incrising Gender Wage Gap. (2021, May 17). Retrieved from