As a part of our ongoing coverage of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, Oola is highlighting inspiring women across a variety of sectors.
Gender discrimination is as American as apple pie. The gender pay gap has existed for centuries, and it lives on today as modern proof of this devastating misogynistic dilemma. Women’s History Month is a time to remember, celebrate, and honor past and present women. But as we reflect on how far we’ve come, we can’t forget how far we have yet to go.
The Roots of Gender Discrimination
American women of the late 17th and early 18th centuries had no independent legal identity separate from their father or husband. Unsurprisingly, this dehumanization ushered in a massive wave of fanatical femicide in the form of the Salem Witch Trials.
The end of the 19th century saw the rise of feminist pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s rallying war cry, “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” finally bringing the issue of gender-based discrimination into the political arena. And while white women managed to gain the right to vote in 1920 (women of color would have to wait, the pay gap persisted.
In the 1970s, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Roe v. Wade granted women financial and medical autonomy. Later, comparable worth, or equal pay for different jobs that require equal amounts of training and responsibility, would become the feminist buzzword of the 1980s. The Reagan administration disregarded comparable worth as a “cockamamie idea.”
Misogyny in the 21st Century
Lily Ledbetter (pictured speaking) sued Goodyear Tire after two decades of being underpaid due to gender. She won the case. That is, until Goodyear appealed, saying Ledbetter filed her suit too long after the alleged discrimination took place. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Ledbetter.
That was 2007. The late, great Ruth Bader Ginsberg pushed for Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. Former President Barack Obama signed the bill into law nine days after his inauguration, the first of his presidency.
Nevertheless, gender discrimination continued to exist through loopholes like setting salaries based on previous payment history, retaliation against discussing salaries with colleagues, the motherhood penalty, and more. The Paycheck Fairness Act was introduced to tie up loose ends, strengthen the anti-discrimination laws’ enforcement, and increase violators’ penalties.
Some form of the Paycheck Fairness Act has been introduced 13 times since 1997. Each time, the bill dies in the Senate—the most recent being two years ago in 2019. So while we’d like to say “that was then, this is now,” gender discrimination is very much present in the new millennium.
What, Exactly, Is the Wage Gap?
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) defines the wage gap as “the difference in men’s and women’s median earnings, usually reported as either the earnings ratio between men and women or as an actual pay gap.”
Various socio-economic factors—race, age, sexuality, education—affect the width of this gender-based pay gap. Because non-Hispanic white men have always been the largest and most advantaged demographic group in the labor force, their median earnings are used as the benchmark against which all other wages are compared.
Today, Hispanic and Indigenous women generally earn around 53 cents for every dollar earned by a white, non-Hispanic man. Black women earn 61 cents, white women earn 77 cents, and Asian women earn 85 cents, according to the Department of Labor. These discrepancies worsen with age and postgraduate education.
The Far-Reaching Effects of 47 Cents
Like an invasive weed, the damaging effects of the gender wage gap spring up in all corners of society, systemically placing women at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts. And those couple quarters of the man’s dollar? They add up quickly.
Economist and president of The WAGE Project Evelyn Murphy estimates that over a lifetime (47 years) of full-time work, the general wage gap amounts to a $70,000 loss for high school graduates, $1.2 million for college graduates, and $2 million for a professional school graduate.
Despite earning more bachelor’s and post-baccalaureate degrees than men, women college graduates are paid 74% of what male graduates make. Women also hold $929 billion, about 58%, of the outstanding student loan debt in the United States.
These inequities follow women throughout their entire professional careers and into retirement, and on and on the cycle continues.
Discrimination Begets More Discrimination
Gender-based discrimination continues to thrive because it is a systemic institution. The problem is bigger than paychecks; it’s worked its way into the very foundation of the US labor market and education system.
On top of already being more likely to be paid less, women hold 59% of all low-wage jobs (food service, retail, hospitality, and travel). When COVID-19’s economic destruction affected these particular industries, women were yet again forced to shoulder the brunt of the damage.
The Pew Research Center found that four out of 10 working women have experienced some form of gender-based discrimination or harassment. Women are also four times as likely as men to say they have been treated as if they were not competent because of their gender.
For maximum efficacy, these notions of inequity are fed to us at a young age. Internalization of these ideas manifests later in life in the form of an unwillingness to or apprehension toward negotiating salaries. All of this works to solidify the unbalanced groundwork for new generations of haves and have-nots.
Finding Light at the End of the Tunnel
Bumping women’s wages to match men’s would reduce the number of working women living below the poverty line in half. It would also add $482 billion to the US economy. Despite this, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research predicts that women will not receive equal pay until 2059. Are we to settle for 40 more years of discrimination?
Finally fixing this long-lived problem will require support from local, state, and federal governments. Contacting elected officials and discussing concerns regarding gender work rights is an excellent place for individuals to start. The Center for American Progress offers an online resource of definitive actions you can ask your politicians to take.
The pervasiveness of gender inequality can be overwhelming to address as a single citizen. Joining local chapters of the National Organization for Women, League of Women Voters of the United States, and other women’s rights advocacy groups can help make a difference in your immediate community and beyond.
Creating a Cru of Support, Accountability, and Empowerment
Facing systemic discrimination is mentally exhausting. When it comes to navigating systemic issues such as the workplace pay gap, women need to lean on each other. Female-led organizations like The Cru create an environment of support and accountability, helping them form connections, so they don’t have to tackle these obstacles alone.
Founded by Tiffany Dufu, The Cru is a national network of mid-level and senior professionals who identify as women committed to helping each other thrive. Small groups (or “Crus”) of up to eight women are matched based on personality, values, demographics, and life goals.
As their website says, “commitment is the glue that holds a Cru together.” Crus meet in structured gatherings for in-person coaching, goal-planning, and progress reviews. In between gatherings, members can access an online portal to track intentions, message other Cru members, and gain skills via exclusive online workshops and conversations with thought leaders.
Paving the Pathway to a Better Future
History and experimental evidence show that there is strength in numbers. Thanks to thousands of feminists of years past, women now have the means to advocate for themselves. But social progress is neither stagnant nor definitive; the onus now falls on us, the current generation, to lay the foundation for an inclusive, equitable society for all genders.
If all goes well, maybe we won’t have to wait until 2059 after all.