When women have access to the same opportunities as men, we take full advantage of them. Take college, for example. More women enroll in college than men, and our graduation rates are higher, too.
The gender pay gap, however, shows that when it comes to wages, the opportunity for women to earn a good life is stunted. New Census data released this week found that women working full-time made $41,554 in 2016, compared to $51,640 for men. That’s 80 cents on the dollar, and it hasn’t changed much in a long time.
Those 80 cents standing between women and men’s earnings represent all of the economic and social obstacles holding women back.
Some of these factors are easy to measure, like hours worked and years of experience. Others less so, like bias and discrimination. But each one contributes to the gap — and there’s no silver bullet that can overcome them all in one fell swoop.
Women have radically different experiences in the labor force depending on how these different economic and social factors relate to their personal situation.
For example, younger women tend to have a smaller pay gap than older women. Millennial women actually make 90 cents on the dollar compared to men our age. But our moms are making 74 to 77 cents on the dollar, depending on their age range. I don’t know about you, but that’s one thing I could do without inheriting from my mother (love ya, Mom!).
Black, Native American, and Hispanic women are at a further disadvantage, because they face the double whammy of race and gender barriers. Just look at the dates when women of color reach Equal Pay Day. (That’s how much longer women have to work into the new year to make the same amount men made in the previous year.)
Equal Pay Day for women overall was recognized on April 4 this year, meaning that it took 12 months plus 94 days to earn what men made in a year. For black women, it was July 31, and we haven’t even gotten to September 25 for Native American women or November 2 for Latinas.
So what can be done about it? The key is empowering women to stay in the workforce at each stage of their careers — especially during early parenthood. We could give new parents more job protections immediately after the birth or adoption of a child. Seniority, for example, should be protected during leave periods.
At Third Way, we have called for a phased leave program that allows parents to work part-time and maintain their seniority in the workplace. Research by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn shows that when women who normally work full-time have legal protections to go on a temporary part-time schedule after childbirth, they are more likely to participate in the labor force. And when women can keep banking seniority, it keeps them on a trajectory to get promoted on the same schedule as their male colleagues — breaking down an important barrier keeping women out of the C-suite.
Furthermore, we could provide families more relief from the expenses of raising young children through the tax code. Ivanka Trump called for Republicans to double the child tax credit, which is a nice start but is still inadequate if the goal is to make child care affordable enough to keep women in the labor force.
Employers have a role to play, too. According to Lean In and McKinsey’s latest Women in the Workplace study, women make up only 19 percent of corporate management, where employees make the big bucks. Women are also more likely to leave high-paying industries like tech and engineering. And switching into more women-friendly industries generally means a pay cut, because jobs that women do pay less than jobs that men do across the board.
It’s going to take a lot of work to close the final 80 cents in the gender pay gap. But it can be done if women are given the equal opportunity to earn. And it’s a goal that women and men will have to work toward together. Because when half of the population can’t get ahead, our economy can’t either.
Emily Liner is a senior policy advisor in the Economic Program at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington, DC.