What’s the Wage Gap Really About?

by | Mar 26, 2020 | Fair Pay

Each year, we somberly observe Equal Pay Day, an inauspicious “holiday” that marks how many more months women must work to be paid what men were in the previous year. Our annual analysis and call to action for equal pay inevitably invites trolling and pushback from those who would like to explain away the numbers.

But there is no explaining away what the wage gap represents:

It is just one of many examples of the burden women of color bear by living in a white supremacist and patriarchal society.

That’s why, this year, we are encouraging our allies, elected leaders and activists to look beyond the numbers associated with the traditional Equal Pay Day narrative. The wage gap has real consequences for women and families, but we must remember that the gap itself is a consequence of how our country systematically devalues women of color and their labor.

Our annual tradition — which in 2020 falls on March 31 — involves crunching the numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau to determine how the wage gap affects women in every state and congressional district, how it impacts Latinas, Native women, Black women and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) women. We analyze how the wage gap — which for women overall is 82 cents to every dollar paid to men — impacts their ability to provide for themselves and their family, to afford health care, rent, college tuition or utilities.

Every year we see scant progress. The wage gap remains persistent and pernicious and is largest for women of color. Latinas are paid 54 cents, Native women 57 cents, Black women 62 cents, and AAPI women 90 cents (and the wage gaps are even larger for many AAPI women depending on their national backgrounds) to every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

Our country and economy were founded on enslaving Africans and their descendants and colonial efforts to destroy Native communities. Centuries later, employed women operating within our “low road” capitalistic system based on that horrific past still feel the impacts. Systemic discrimination in pay and exploitation of workers based on race, class, gender and immigration status can be traced to our founding, as well as racist immigration policies: The Page Act of 1875, which prohibited Chinese women from entering the country and preceded the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; the Immigration Act of 1924, which created a quota system based on national origin; the Bracero program of the 1940s-1960s, which allowed for the exploitation of migrant farm workers from Mexico.

These policies aren’t relics of the past either. The devaluation and demonization of people of color are driving forces behind the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, the family separation policy, and the president’s hideous attempts to use xenophobia aimed at Asian people to divert attention from his own inept response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Is it any wonder that in this country women are consistently paid less, regardless of industry, occupation or education?

Of course, over the last four centuries working people have seen gains. But even in some of our biggest progressive policy wins women of color have been shortchanged. For example, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted in 1938, it purposefully excluded large categories of workers in jobs that tended to be performed by women and people of color. Decades later, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allows most employees to seek redress from workplace harassment and discrimination, excludes many domestic workers due to its 15-employee threshold.

Examples of the devaluation of women, their labor and their caregiving work are not relegated to the past.

Women still face workplace harassment, including sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. One in three women say they have been the victim of sexual harassment at work. A recent study found that women who say they’ve experienced sexual harassment at work are 6.5 times as likely to change jobs as women who have not — often to a job of lower quality or with lower pay. While pregnancy discrimination has been illegal for more than 40 years, pregnant workers in the U.S. still face workplace discrimination, and women of color and immigrants are at particular risk.

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not provide any type of paid leave. This means the gender wage gap is even larger when measured over the long term because women are often pushed to spend time out of the workforce, in part due to caregiving: Over a 15-year period, women are paid just 49 cents for each dollar paid to a man.

Even during the current crisis our country is facing in light of the coronavirus pandemic, politicians do not see the need to recognize women’s caregiving work. Paid leave and paid sick days protections added to emergency legislation have largely been gutted and we are at great risk of passing a stimulus that prioritizes corporate profits over working people, including the many women of color who work in grocery stores, restaurants or child care centers.

Centuries of racist and sexist history, policy, and culture are the drivers of the wage gap, not women’s choices. We know there are policies that can help: the Paycheck Fairness Act and Raise the Wage Act, both of which passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support; national paid leave and paid sick days standards; protections against workplace harassment, including pregnancy discrimination; and access to comprehensive health care, including reproductive health care. Enacting these policies will help ensure women are not waiting until 2059 for fair pay.

But to achieve equal pay — and equality for all women — we must rip out the roots of white supremacy and patriarchy that allow the wage gap to flourish year after year.