Holly Corbett, Contributor
March 14, 2022
Equal Pay Day falls on March 15 this year, which signifies how far into the new year the average woman must work to be paid what the average man was paid the previous year. Last year Equal Pay Day landed farther into the year on March 23, and revealed a slightly larger gender wage gap of 82 cents on the dollar as compared to this year’s 83 cents. On the surface, this looks like progress.
Yet these numbers are not telling the whole story. In February 2022, 1.1 million fewer women were in the labor force than at the start of the pandemic. The latest figure accounts only for the women who remained in the workforce full time, and fails to reflect the financial impact for the millions of women who lost their jobs or who were pushed out of the workforce due to lack of childcare or other factors—many of whom were low-paid workers—or the women moving to part-time jobs. This caused the overall median earnings for the women who remained working full time to rise.
“It is important for us to also look at all workers,” says Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the National Women’s Law Center. “If you lost your job, if you were forced into part-time work because you were a retail or restaurant worker and didn't have as many hours [during the pandemic], the wage gap is much wider.”
In fact, when comparing all women who worked with all men who worked—regardless of how many hours or weeks they worked—women were typically paid just 73 cents for every dollar paid to men—and the gap widens for many women of color. For example, overall Latinas were typically paid 49 cents, Native American women were typically paid 50 cents and Black women were typically paid 58 cents.
If we look only at the median wage gap for full-time working women who start working at age 20, the gap still translates to a woman having to work until she is 72 to be paid what a man was paid by age 60, and she stands to lose $417,400 over a 40-year career. Latinas, Native Americans, and Black women working full-time lose about $1 million over the course of their working lives. This makes it impossible to ever catch up because they’d have to work beyond their life expectancies to earn what a white, non-Hispanic man did by age 60.
The wage gap has a huge impact on women’s ability to take care of themselves and their families. “Since I was 12 years old, I’ve worked non-stop. As a single mom caring for three sons, I took on two to three jobs at a time to make enough to support them,” says Venorica “Vee” Tucker, a 72-year-old Black woman who is a hospitality worker in Washington, D.C. “But as much as I tried to save—I have no money to show for it. At 72, I don’t have the option to retire—and that scares me. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been furloughed from my full-time food service job at the House of Representatives and, so far, I’ve only been able to get a few limited bartender gigs. People ask ‘When are you gonna retire?’ I say, ‘When I drop.’ But at my age, will people even hire me? And what happens when my body or mind breaks down?”
Forty years is a long time to be working, but for many women they don’t have a choice but to work for much longer. “If you're on your feet all day, you should be able to retire after 40 years of hard work,” says Tucker. “Latinas, Native American women and Black women will never be able to make up the roughly $1 million dollars they lose over their lifetimes, and many will literally be working until they die. We think of the wage gap as being a few pennies on the dollar, but it really does add up. Many of these women are never going to be able to retire, because the wage gap is robbing them. It's contributing to the racial wealth gap that has been pervasive over centuries between white families and other families, because many can’t afford to buy homes or send their kids to college.”
Any way you cut it, the wage gap persists. “There's a wage gap in 94% of occupations, regardless of whether a woman is working in a low-paid job or a high-paid job,” says Tucker. “There seems to be little else explaining this persistent wage gap except for racism and sexism.”
When women aren’t fairly compensated for their labor, it costs women, families and the economy. We can’t afford to go backwards on gender equality: Closing the wage gap could cut the poverty rate for women in half and add nearly $5 billion to the GDP, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research . Yet we may see regression on Equal Pay Day in the years to come. “All those low-paid women workers who were forced out of the workforce during the past two years of the pandemic are going to come back to work,” says Tucker. “When they return, they might take a lower-paying job or have an employer who pays them less because they're not fresh on their skills or whatever it is. I have a feeling that we're gonna see that wage gap widen in the future.”
Reversing this trend calls for a variety of solutions, from passing public policies that support caregivers to affordable childcare and paid leave to addressing gender biases that show up in the workplace in areas such as performance reviews and promotions. We can’t wait to take real action to close the pay gap: Women, workplaces and our economy are counting on it.
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