The Gender Pay Gap

Why men tend to earn more, why it matters, and what to do about it

Posted Apr 10, 2014

April brings us Equal Pay Day, a day when we call attention to the gender pay gap, argue about it, and then carry on as usual. This year, Equal Pay Day was marked by partisan squabbling and culminated in the U.S. Senate voting down the Paycheck Fairness Act (intended to strengthen the 1963 Equal Pay Act). 

You probably know many employed women because in the United States, the majority of women (including mothers) are employed either full or part-time. But women frequently receive less pay for their work than do men. This gender pay gap for full-time/year-round workers is 23.5 percent, a persistent gap that has shown little change since 2001. Women’s median annual earnings in 2012 were $37,791 compared with $49,398 for men. This gap is even larger for African American and Hispanic/ Latina women who earn only 54.1 percent of the white men’s median annual earnings.

The gender wage gap should concern us because it is evidence we do not have a gender-equal society. But is not just a women’s issue. Like most women’s issues, it’s a family and children’s issue as well. Many families rely on a woman’s income, and some can’t survive or thrive unless she makes a fair wage. As those who study this issue will tell you, women’s lower wages affect where they (and their children) live, the educational opportunities they can provide for their children, and the food that they can put on the table---especially for families where women are the sole or major family earners. Women’s lower wages also put them at greater risk for poverty in their retirement years as they affect retirement savings and benefits. The gender pay gap even makes student loan burdens greater for women.

Why do employed women make less money than men? One main reason is what researchers call gender occupational segregation. Women and men tend to work in different jobs and employment sectors. Jobs mainly held by men have substantially higher pay rates compared to those mainly held by women. Nearly twice as many women as men work in occupations paying poverty wages.

Gender occupational segregation is less than it was but it persists. Gender stereotypes, gender roles, and gender socialization prepare women and men for different types of jobs as well as affecting employers’ perceptions of who is appropriate for a given job. Most of us also seek training, education, and jobs consistent with our gender role and receive encouragement from others to do so.

But even when women work the same jobs as men, and when men work at traditionally female occupations, women often earn less. For example, women supervisors of retail sales workers earn 79 percent of what their male counterparts make; women nurses earn 88 percent of what male nurses make; and male elementary and middle school teachers earn 9 percent more than their female colleagues. This situation is partly due to outright gender wage discrimination. Although it is technically illegal in the United States (since 1963) to pay women less than men for the same work, many women are unaware that they earn less than their male coworkers and few women have the time and money to pursue legal action. While many employers would never discriminate, many others are happy to pay women less if they can get away with it because it saves them money.

Of course sometimes women get paid less because they are less skilled, less educated, or less experienced workers relative to men (this is called the human capital explanation). This is particularly an issue for mothers. Unavailability of quality affordable childcare in combination with women’s lower wages means that in many families it makes sense for the mother to leave the workforce. Women who reenter the workforce after an extended period of childrearing lack current work experience and job skills leading to depressed wages.

What can we do about the gender wage gap? Enforcing and strengthening existing legislation (such as the Paycheck Fairness Act) and increasing the availability of affordable high-quality childcare would certainly help. The AAUW also recommends that companies do their part by conducting salary audits to make sure that women are not being paid less for doing the same work as men.

Reducing gender occupational segregation is another important part of the solution. The AAUW suggests that women should pay attention to the salaries associated with college majors and occupations and think about the long-term financial implications of their career decisions. They also recommend that women seek union jobs and do research on typical salaries for a job so that they can better negotiate salary. But the truth of the matter though is that until the gendered stereotypes that lead to gendered occupational roles diminish even further, until we stop seeing women’s employment and jobs as supplements to a family’s income, until we stop insisting that we can’t support ameliorative efforts because it will “hurt business,” and until we stop devaluing “women’s work” relative to “men’s work,” the gap will persist.


American Association of University Women (AAUW).  Fact Sheet Road Map to Pay Equity.  retrieved on April 7, 2014. 

American Association of University Women (AAUW). retrieved on April 7, 2014. 

American Association of University Women (AAUW).  The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap. retrieved on April 7, 2014. 

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014).  Labor Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Retrieved on April 2, 2014. 

Catalyst (March 2014).  Do Women Outearn Men in the United States? The Facts.  retrieved on April 6, 2014

Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). (see this site for a variety of research reports and fact sheets on gender pay equity)

United States Department of Labor. retrieved on April 2, 2104.