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Equal Pay Day: Why are women still only making 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man?

Equal Pay Day, which falls on March 15 this year, denotes how far into the new year women must work to be paid what men were paid the previous year.
Image: A woman holds a sign that reads, \"Equal Pay\" during \"A Day Without A Woman\" demonstration in Miami
A woman holds a sign that reads, "Equal Pay" during "A Day Without A Woman" demonstration on March 8, 2017, in Miami.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Tuesday marks Equal Pay Day, which symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.

Right now, women are still only making 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man, and for the past 28 years, this number has remained fairly stagnant.

“A lot of people think that things have gotten better, but they haven’t. That’s why we first developed Equal Pay Day, when advocates, lawmakers and the general population can think about the wage gap and its impact on women, families and their lifetime of earnings,” said Carolyn York, secretary-treasurer for the National Committee on Pay Equity.

Experts say that one of the main causes of the wage gap is that women are overrepresented in the lowest paying jobs, which include caretaking.

“Fields that have traditionally been dominated by women pay less — often a lot less — than fields dominated by men. Women’s work and women’s needs just are not valued equally,” said Gloria L. Blackwell, CEO of The American Association of University Women, a women’s equality nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C.

The disparity is also rampant in white collar sectors, according to Sharmili Majmudar, an executive vice president at Women Employed, a women’s labor advocacy organization in Chicago. The pay gap can have lasting implications for all women.

“Women with master’s degrees who are working full time are still paid 71 cents on the dollar,” said Majmudar. “That adds up. That’s over a million dollars over a 40-year career for many women, and that will determine how much retirement someone has, whether or not they’ll buy a car, whether or not they can send their kids to college.”

Though exact data on the pandemic’s effect on employment is not yet available, Covid-19 likely threw another setback for women into the mix, according to Dr. Curtis Hall, an associate professor who has studied the pay gap at Drexel University. Hundreds of thousands of women left the workforce in lieu of childcare, often not by choice.

“The pandemic is likely to exacerbate the wage gap because women, who were more likely to leave or scale back and lose those years of experience, which is directly related to pay and promotion opportunities,” said Hall.

Women of color are faring even worse, with Black women earning 36 percent less than white men, and Latina women earning 43 percent less.

To combat the pay gap, specific state measures have been cropping up all over the country in the past year. In New York, employers are prohibited from asking prospective employees for previous salaries, a practice that purportedly inhibits women’s growth. Illinois passed transparency laws that require companies to list their salary ranges on job advertisements.

The Paycheck Fairness Act was introduced to Congress in 2021. If passed, the Act would address wage discrimination and provide negotiation skills training for women on a federal level.

But the problem could be addressed right now outside of legislative halls, according to York.

“The thing about workplace policies is that a company can make those changes tomorrow. They don’t need to wait for legislation or a complaint. If they do it, it would be better for everyone,” said York. “It would be best for the companies too, since they’d be attracting the best talent.”

In order to address their pay gaps successfully, individual companies should first audit their employment data to look for gaps, according to Majmudar. From there, employers should intentionally design their workplace to be inclusive; this means having a paid leave option that will allow women to continue their careers if they have children. It also means recruiting a diverse range of women actively on every level.

“If our workplaces are designed essentially for men who are the head of household and don't have any caregiving responsibilities, that’s not who the American worker is anymore,” said Majmudar.

Majmudar continued: “We’ve seen through the pandemic how critical flexibility has been, how critical providing things like paid sick leave and paid medical leave has been. We have to design our workplaces for the widest breadth of workers possible.”