‘Women were hard hit, and women of color were hit even harder’: On Equal Pay Day, how the pandemic impacted the gender wage gap
Women have long fought for the right to earn the same amount as men. And by some measures, they have earned significant gains: The U.S. Census Bureau notes that in 1960, the ratio of female-to-male earnings for full-time workers was 60.7%, meaning women were taking home roughly $6 for every $10 that men received in the same job. By 2020, that figure was 83%.
It’s an issue highlighted by Equal Pay Day, which is being observed on March 15 this year. The day serves as a representation of how long into the year women have to work to earn the same amount as men. But regardless of the gains shown by Census Bureau compensation figures, some workplace and economics experts say the situation for women has actually worsened two years into the pandemic.
That’s largely because millions of U.S. jobs were lost during the global health crisis — and jobs in industries that pay lower wages, such as the hospitality sector, were especially affected. Those are the same industries where women are overrepresented.
“Women were hard hit, and women of color were hit even harder,” says Gloria Blackwell, the chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a gender-equity nonprofit.
Indeed, according to the National Women’s Law Center, “women lost a majority of the nearly 22 million jobs lost between February and April 2020 and continue to be a majority of net job losers. Women are also more likely than men to work part time, and women lost all of the net part-time jobs lost between 2019 and 2021.”
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor breaks down the situation: During that critical early-pandemic period in 2020, women lost 11.9 million jobs, while men lost 10.1 million.
Women spend a disproportionate amount of time caring for children and performing housework compared to men, experts note. And with child-care center closures and school-age children learning remotely from home, many women had to quit their jobs or reduce their workloads to mind their kids.
The Labor Department notes that 4.4 million women left the labor force between February and April 2020, compared to 3.9 million men. The department adds that the participation rate of women in the work world hit a 35-year low in April 2020.
Hundreds of thousands of women rejoined the workforce in 2021, and this past February’s jobs data showed strong overall gains in the economy. Still, 48,000 women exited the labor force in February. “For every woman who left the labor force last month, nearly 10 men entered the labor force and women now make up all labor force leavers since February 2020,” the NWLC said earlier this month.
“The career-earnings situation is even more dire for women of color: Black women are behind by more than $800,000, and Latina women by $1 million-plus.”
The situation affects women more than just in the short term, says Blackwell. Even if women regain employment, their lifetime earnings will have ultimately taken a hit, which affects their ability to retire. She notes that over a 40-year career span, women lag behind men in earnings by $400,000.
The career-earnings situation is even more dire for women of color, Blackwell adds: Black women are behind by more than $800,000, and Latina women by $1 million-plus.
While women on average make 83 cents on a typical man’s dollar, Asian American and Pacific Islander women make 75 cents on a white man’s dollar (with women in some ethnic subgroups earning far less than others), Black women make 58 cents, Native American women make 50 cents and Latinas make 49 cents, according to AAUW.
Related: Latina Equal Pay Day spotlights the steepest wage gap — and how the pandemic has made things worse
The overall gender wage gap improved slightly in 2021 for women overall compared to men, but “it worsened marginally for Asian, Black, and Hispanic women compared to White men, and remained the same for White women,” an analysis by the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research found.
It’s also worth noting that women earn less than men in just about every job sector, according to the Census Bureau. It points to wage gaps in both jobs dominated by women (like hairstylists and registered nurses) and ones dominated by men (such as farmers and electricians).
That troubles Elise Gould, a senior economist with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “You can’t explain it away,” she says of the disparities across many sectors.
Gould says she’s encouraged by the fact that women today are better educated, as women continue to outpace men in college enrollment. But she adds that it doesn’t necessarily translate into bigger paychecks for women. “They’re not seeing the returns in the labor market,” she says.
Solutions to the wage gap will ultimately have to come at the legislative level, Gould says. In particular, she says, raising the federal minimum wage is a critical step because so many women are at the lower end of the pay scale. She adds that legislation that supports the rights of workers to form unions is important to helping women narrow the wage gap.
Other experts also say pay-transparency laws and investments in paid leave, child care and elder care are part of the solution.
Read more: Here’s what would happen if Americans could look up everyone’s salary
The Biden administration on Tuesday announced new measures to advance pay equity for federal workers and contractors, including an executive order that will ask the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council to consider limiting or banning federal contractors from asking about or considering job applicants’ salary histories.
On an individual level, Blackwell says women can hone their salary-negotiating skills. To that end, AAUW offers programs that address just that issue, both for people starting their careers and for those already established in the workforce.
It’s also critical to keep collecting data about the wage gap, Blackwell says: The more we know, she says, the better we can understand what needs to be changed.
Related: The ‘double pay penalty’ that many Asian-American and Pacific Islander women experience
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