The Gender Pay Gap Has Barely Budged Since the ’90s

4701930104_499b93193d_oEach year in April we mark the passage of Equal Pay Day—in 2016 it falls on April 12—a symbolic date that marks how far into the year women must work to finally make as much as men were paid the previous year. The inaugural Equal Pay Day took place in 1996, and the gender pay gap has hardly budged an inch since then.

According to a report released today by the Senate Joint Economic Committee (JEC), women are paid an average of 79 cents for every dollar a man earns; the wage gap was about 75 cents to the dollar in 1997, the year after Equal Pay Day was first commemorated.

The JEC report reveals an even more disturbing trend for women of color: African American women are paid 60 cents for every dollar a white man earns, and Latinas a paltry 55 cents.

This seemingly immovable wage gap has a profound impact on lifetime earnings and retirement benefits. A woman being paid 79 cents to a man’s dollar will lose out on nearly half a million dollars over a 40-year career doing the same or equivalent work as a male colleague, and women ages 45 to 54 typically earn about 70 percent of what their male counterparts are paid.

Plus, said JEC ranking member Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), “Lower pay throughout their working lives also means that women contribute less to retirement plans, receive smaller pensions and smaller Social Security benefits. The result is that women have substantially less income than men in retirement and are much more likely to live in poverty as they grow older.”

Not even post-secondary education can guarantee a woman equal pay. In fact, the JEC report reveals that women with graduate degrees are paid about $5,000 less per year than men with bachelor’s degrees. And for working women who decide to become mothers, the pay gap can grow substantially upon returning to work: Many are paid less than women without children—a “mommy penalty”—while men who become fathers actually receive a “daddy bonus,” earning more than their childless male peers.

So when can we expect to see this gap close? Not until 2059, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In the meantime, securing tougher pay equity laws at the federal and state levels is critical to ensuring women are paid a fair wage. California’s Fair Pay Act, which became law last year, offers an excellent model: It takes into account ongoing sex segregation in the workforce, and ensures women are paid the same wages as men doing comparable work—for example, a hotel room cleaner versus a janitor. Fair pay laws would also be strengthened by a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex.

Photo courtesy of Australian Services Union on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a master of journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.