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What You Need to Know About the Gender Pay Gap

There is a seemingly constant debate over the "wage gap" in the United States -- whether it exists, why it exists, how large it is, if it does exist. The wage gap represents the average difference in wages paid to men versus wages paid to women. You may have heard the (sometimes disputed) assertion that in the United States, women are only paid 77 cents for every dollar men are paid. The question is, how can this be true when wage discrimination is illegal, and has been for decades? Here we will provide you with a few facts about this debate so that you can draw your own conclusions.

There is a seemingly constant debate over the “wage gap” in the United States — whether it exists, why it exists, how large it is, if it does exist. The wage gap represents the average difference in wages paid to men versus wages paid to women. You may have heard the (sometimes disputed) assertion that in the United States, women are only paid 77 cents for every dollar men are paid. The question is, how can this be true when wage discrimination is illegal, and has been for decades? Here we will provide you with a few facts about this debate so that you can draw your own conclusions.

gender pay gap

(Photo Credit: dizid/Flickr)

What Is the Basis of the 77-Cents Figure?

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The 77-cents-to-every-dollar figure is based on the average wage of men employed full-time in the United States compared to the average wage of women employed full-time in the United States. So, it is not a straight-up comparison of, for example, female electrical engineers with 10 years experience compared to male electrical engineers with 10 years experience.

The wage gap is not caused in large part by overt discrimination. Instead, it reflects a society in which the types and style of full-time work performed by women are, on average, valued at a lower rate than the average type and style of full-time work performed by men. So a question then arises: why are the jobs that women are statistically more likely to do like nursing, social work, and elementary education valued less by our society than the work done predominantly by males? Is it that nurses, teachers, and elementary educators are really providing a less valuable service, or do we value those services less because of how society values the people who perform those services? And if it is the latter, should the government intervene?

It is worth noting, to understand the discussion, that societal expectations of mothers versus expectations of fathers also certainly play a role, particularly when it comes to the wage gap within a profession. An article in The New York Times earlier this year noted that much of the wage gap would disappear if men and women were working the same hours, but that doing so is often impossible for women who are expected to be the primary care providers for children in addition to working.

Overt Wage Discrimination Is Illegal, But It Still Happens

While much of the wage gap is not attributable to overt gender-based wage discrimination, such discrimination does exist. In 2010, a report by Congress’ Joint Economic Committee noted evidence from economists presented at hearings on this issue that some portion of the wage gap is not accounted for by mere job choice and experience/education differences between men and women — some portion of the wage gap is due to overt gender discrimination.

The Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act requires that men and women in the same workplace doing the same work must be given the same pay. The act covers all compensation provided to employees, and is based on actual job responsibilities, not job titles. If there is inequality, the higher paid sex cannot have his or her compensation decreased in order to make the compensation equal. Instead, the lesser-paid sex must have his or her compensation increased. In addition to being a violation of the Equal Pay Act, paying one sex less than the other may also be a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and a violation of state law.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you know someone who has been paid less by an employer because of his or her gender? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Daniel Kalish
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