Can We Close the Gender Wage Gap This Century?

Have you heard of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research?  Maybe you haven’t, but I wager you’re familiar with its work.  IWPR is a leading think tank on the intersection of public policy and gender, perhaps best known for tracking the gender wage gap in our country.

According to IWPR’s research, female full-time workers made only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2013, producing a gender wage gap of 22 percent.  The gap can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in cumulative losses over the course of a woman’s lifetime.  IWPR projects that if the rate of progress remains constant, it will take 43 years – or until 2058 – to achieve parity.

But a new study by IWPR released this month suggests that the gap will close earlier in some states than in others.  “The Status of Women in the States: 2015 Employment and Earnings” [PDF] looks at each state’s rate of progress since 1959 and projects forward. The Sunshine State tops the rankings: IWPR suggests Florida will be the first state where women’s median annual earnings reach parity, albeit not until 2038.  If 23 years seems too long to wait, consider that women working in Wyoming should not expect the gap to close until the next century, in 2159 (p. 7).

The study contains several findings that might surprise you. Here’s one that surprised me: although many women view education as a vehicle for improving job prospects and enhancing financial security, the gender gap actually widens for those with the highest levels of educational attainment.  Women with bachelor’s degrees can expect just 71 cents for each dollar earned by their male counterparts.  That disparity jumps to 69 cents for women with graduate degrees (p. 12).

Despite this bleak picture, I found a few encouraging stats about the generational divide.  Millennial women face a narrower gender wage gap with an earnings ratio of 85 percent and they are more likely to hold management, business, and financial operations positions – and to work in professional occupations more generally – than millennial men (p. 10).

Millennial women will also enjoy the protection of a growing number of state statutes that take aim at the gender wage gap.  Five states and the District of Columbia have passed “comparable worth” laws or regulations for public employees to prevent undervaluation of work traditionally performed by women.  Twice as many states have combated pay secrecy with laws barring employer retaliation against employees who discuss their wages, bringing these important points of comparison into the open (p. 14). Statutes like these are important tools for updating and strengthening the federal laws that promised equal pay for equal work but have made only a dent in the gender wage gap since their passage a half-century ago. Here’s hoping that more efforts like them will put us on track to close the gender wage gap ahead of IWPR’s projections.

Lauren Hartz

Lauren Hartz is an attorney who cares deeply about women's rights and about social justice causes. She also cares deeply about dachshunds.

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