Respect Equality

The gender pay gap has stayed largely unchanged for 20 years. What will it take to close it?

Last year, women earned 82 percent as much as men.

Story at a glance

  • New data from the Pew Research Center detail the progress made in closing the gender pay gap since 1982.

  • The results show disparities in pay remain largely unchanged since the early 2000s. 

  • The findings are based on median hourly earnings of full- and part-time workers. 

Though the gender pay gap has significantly narrowed since the 1980s, progress has slowed over the last two decades, according to new research. 

Women in 2022 made 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, up only slightly from 80 cents in 2002, the Pew Research Center found in a report released Wednesday. 

“There is no simple explanation for this,” said Rakesh Kochhar, a senior researcher at Pew, in an interview with Changing America. Several factors likely play a role, however. 

Overrepresentation of women in certain jobs, for one. Gender discrimination, for another. 

To further close the gap going forward, labor experts suggest shifts in both policy and culture could be helpful in boosting women’s participation in the labor force and curtailing gender and racial discrimination.

What’s behind the slow down? 

In 1982, women earned 65 cents for every dollar earned by men, Pew data show.

Over the following 20 years, an influx of women entering the workforce and taking on different, often higher paying occupations like managerial, business and finance roles significantly narrowed the gap, Kochhar explained. More women also received college degrees and achieved greater levels of educational attainment. 

“Out of these three things, progress has continued on the education front, but progress on the other fronts seems to have stalled,” said Kochhar. 

Women are now more likely than men to enroll in college and complete their programs. The impact of those ongoing educational gains on wages appears limited, however: A degree doesn’t carry the same weight it once did, and more education does not always lead to greater earnings. 

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Even if they do get higher pay, women with degrees are still underearning men of similar education levels. According to the Pew data, college-educated women are no closer to wage parity with college-educated men than women without degrees are with their male counterparts. 

The enduring gaps are in part because of disparities between men and women’s occupations, experts say. Though women have increased their presence in high-paying jobs previously held by men, they remain overrepresented in education, health care and personal care and service occupations, all of which can be lower paying. 

“The current considerable differences in occupations and industries that men and women are employed in does play a role [in the gender pay gap],” said Francine Blau, the Frances Perkins professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Professor of Economics at Cornell University.

Evidence suggests discrimination in the labor market contributes as well, she added. 

Occupation disparities persist even when applicants are similarly qualified for roles, explained Ofronama Biu, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. Her research has shown that “even when people are qualified, they’re not able to obtain roles that they are qualified for.”

And when qualified individuals do obtain the same roles, she added, “women are still underpaid, even in the same occupations.” 

An additional Pew poll found that most American women feel a major reason behind the gender pay gap is that employers treat women differently from men.

The current gender pay gap also varies among racial and ethnic groups, Pew data shows. 

Black women earned 70 percent as much as white men in 2022 and Hispanic women 65 percent as much, while Asian women made around 93 percent as much as white men and white women around 83 percent as much. Pew based its totals on median hourly earnings of full- and part-time workers.  

Overall, despite some stagnation in the past two decades, progress has been made in closing the gap between younger workers. 

Beginning in 2007, women between the ages 25 and 34 have consistently earned 90 cents or more for every dollar earned by men in the same age group, Pew data show. 

But younger women have always done better, Kochhar explained, and as women age, the gap begins to widen, especially at the age when women are more likely to have children at home.

The role of parenthood

“I think in the US that the main explanation for the gender pay gap is having children,” said Yana Rodgers, a professor in the department of Women’s and Gender Studies and the department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University. 

Having a child and all the responsibilities that come with it take a toll on women’s wages. Unpaid work in the home, which can involve caring for children and elders, disproportionately falls on the shoulders of women and “serves as a constraint for women’s ability to advance in the labor market,” Rodgers explained. 

Some women may take lower paying jobs that have increased flexibility to meet demands. Women may also be kept from higher paying jobs because of the perception they will have children and need more flexibility or leave time, Rodgers added. 

Others who leave the workforce to raise children may return later to jobs with lesser pay, she said. 

Currently, the median age for new mothers in the United States is 30

In 2022, women aged 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 earned 83 percent as much as their male counterparts. For those aged 55 to 65, the total dropped to 79 percent. 

Pew data show mothers aged 25 to 44 are less likely to participate in the labor force than women the same age without children. When they are employed, mothers tend to work fewer hours each week.

The Pew poll found 67 percent of working mothers with children at home feel a great deal of pressure to focus on their responsibilities at home, compared with 45 percent of working fathers. 

“This dynamic of parenthood and who feels more responsible for dealing with family life and who takes steps like working fewer hours or experiencing interruptions in their career ladders, that seems to continue to fall on women,” said Kochhar. 

The United States has fallen behind other economically advanced countries when it comes to female labor force participation, due in large part to other countries’ increased attention to work family issues, Blau explained. 

“If we want to get [labor force] participation rates and other aspects of women’s economic outcomes, like the gender pay gap, jump started again, we need to focus on work family issues,” said Blau. 

Will the gender pay gap ever close? 

For the gap to continue to narrow, policy changes and societal and cultural shifts will need to take place, experts say. 

On the policy front, some evidence suggests increased salary transparency could play a role in closing the gap, along with laws aimed at prohibiting companies from asking an applicant about their pay history. 

Improving family policies around parental leave and childcare, meanwhile, can help increase female labor force participation, research shows. 

Doubling down on shifts already put in motion by the pandemic could be helpful in mitigating childcare pressures as well.

One silver lining of COVID-19 is that employers are now more familiar with a hybrid work model or remote work, said Rodgers. Women with childcare needs are less likely to leave their job when they have the option of remote work, polls show, and women in general are more likely to prioritize flexible work schedules and locations than men. 

The pandemic also helped shift perceptions of home responsibilities as more men took on tasks, Rodgers added. “I think the pandemic made clear that care work is everybody’s work, not just women’s work.”

Improving wages and benefits for workers in lower-paying care roles poses another opportunity for action, Biu said.

Addressing discrimination — based on both gender and race — is also crucial to narrowing the gender pay gap, experts stress.

Pay parity laws, or laws requiring employers to ensure men and women in the same roles are paid the same, can help prevent discrimination, Biu said. 

But taking race into account along with gender is also important, she noted, “because even if we close the gender gap, there’s still a racial and gender gap.”

Rodgers said “getting people into non-traditional occupations, in higher paying occupations, as well as ending whatever discrimination is left in the labor market, not only by gender, but also by race and ethnicity,” will ultimately help close the pay gap. 

Overall, factors related to discrimination and obstacles to women in the labor market can be addressed, said Blau. However, she said another portion of the gender pay gap that is harder to pin down may be related to different preferences women have. 

“I certainly believe we can make further progress with appropriate policies, and so that we focus on what can improve the situation,” she said. 

“And then when we have the right policies in place, we’ve done everything we can to improve [the gender pay gap], that might be a better time to sit and mull the issue of whether it will ever close completely or not.” 

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