Occupational segregation – a legacy of racism, sexism and ableism – is a major contributor to the wage gap

, | Mar 14, 2023

It’s Equal Pay Day again. And as a reminder, we’re not celebrating because this day commemorates the fact that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. This is what most people know as the wage gap.

While there are many contributing factors to the wage gap, including racism, sexual harassment, and a lack of family-friendly policies, this year our team took a closer look at occupational segregation.

Occupational segregation means people of different races and genders are unevenly represented in different kinds of jobs, which have very different wages, benefits and working conditions. Some might argue that this is a consequence of people’s choices. But our latest research explains that the persistence of occupational segregation is not an accident: it is a shameful legacy of the racist, sexist and ableist history of this country, and it costs women billions in wages (not to mention, generational wealth) each year.

From the earliest days of European colonization of this country – to the racially restrictive immigration policies barring women of color from lawfully entering the U.S. or obtaining citizenship – the labor of women of color has always been essential, but it’s also been exploited. Women were pushed into difficult, and sometimes dangerous low-paid jobs in agriculture, laundries, factory and domestic work, with limited legal status or protections. Meanwhile, people with disabilities were seen as “unfit” for paid work and relegated to institutions – where they often nonetheless were forced to work.

Similar dynamics continue to play out today. As our analysis details, fields in which women of color make up large numbers of workers, such as in child care, home health care, agricultural production, and laundry and textile work, and are essential to the economy. Yet they tend to have low pay and poor working conditions because they are undervalued.

When looking at the 10 most common jobs for women, vs. the 10 most common jobs for men – women are paid $48,500 per year, while men are paid $56,500 per year. If the 12 million women working full time, year round in those occupations were paid the average wages made by men in their most common occupations they would take home an additional $96 billion in wages in just one year. (See Table 1 in the issue brief.)

If you’re a woman in a high-paying job – primarily STEM fields – you’re among a small crowd, making up just 30% of workers in the 20 highest-paying jobs. But if you work in child care, housekeeping or at a restaurant, you’re among the women who make up more than 60% of workers in the 20 lowest-paying jobs. (See Table 2 in the issue brief.)

And if you are disabled, racism, sexism and ableism also likely affect how you’re paid and the jobs that are open to you. Our research shows that the 10 jobs employing the largest number of disabled women pay $15,000 less each year than the average wage in the 10 most-common jobs for non-disabled men. If disabled women’s wages in these jobs were on par with non-disabled men’s they would make $9 billion a year! (See Table 3 in the issue brief.)

The commercials say Barbie can be anything, but what they don’t say is that she won’t get paid the same as her male counterparts. And as we look ahead to the 60th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act later this year, the fact is, after accounting for other factors that contribute to the gender wage gap – including occupational segregation and caregiving-related career interruptions that impact work experience – an estimated 38 percent of the wage gap is still unexplained.

That unexplained wage gap, however, is not exactly a mystery. Approach any woman at random and it’s highly likely she will be able to share a time in which she experienced the effects of pay discrimination or can relay a story from a friend or colleague. Employer practices like making lower salary offers to women at hiring, basing initial salary offers on previous pay (which carries forward any pay discrimination women experienced in the past) and inequitable distribution of bonuses, raises and promotions are all too common and an undeniable contributor to gender pay inequities.

Read our full issue brief, Women’s Work Is Undervalued, and It’s Costing Us Billions, for a more detailed discussion about other factors that contribute to occupation segregation including how women – especially women of color – are pushed out of higher-paid occupations or discouraged from entering them in the first place and our recommendations for meaningful action policymakers can take to close the wage gap.