The gender wage gap is much worse than you think

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The idea that women make 80 cents for each dollar men earn is one of those depressing statistics that many have internalized as a fact of life. But here’s a question for Mother’s Day, May 12: What if the situation is actually much worse?

That’s the finding of a recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Traditionally, researchers and officials have estimated the gulf between men and women’s earnings by looking at how much women working year-round and full-time earn in a given year in comparison to their male counterparts.

The study takes a different approach to measuring the gender wage gap by comparing the earnings of both women and men with all kinds of working arrangements over a 15-year period. When measured this way, women earn just 49 cents for every dollar a man earns.

“What this study tries to accomplish is really to compare all women’s labor market experiences to all men’s,” said Stephen Rose a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, and a co-author of the study.

By comparing earnings over a 15-year period, the study captures the experiences of women as they move through the labor market and illustrates how those experiences affect their economic status. The study covers people who have spent at least one year in the workforce. Among women workers, about 43% experienced at least one year with no earnings, compared to just 23% of men.

That time out of the labor force can have major consequences for women workers’ financial security not only during their career, but also once they retire, Rose said. The benefit a retiree receives from Social Security is tied to their average earnings during their 35 most profitable years. Any time spent not working can affect those calculations.

The reasons why women are more likely to miss out on time in the workforce and the economic benefits that come with it are well known. Child-rearing is more likely to take a toll on women’s careers; for one, men don’t need to take time out of work recover physically from childbirth and in addition, because women have historically earned less than men they’re often the spouses whose jobs are sacrificed when the cost of child care appears prohibitively expensive.

Even women who aren’t mothers are more likely to find themselves taking time out of the labor force — and paying the economic consequences — to care for elderly or sick relatives.

Retirees who are married or have been married may be eligible to claim 50% of their spouse’s benefits, which could shield some women from the retirement consequences the gulf in earnings during their working life. But women who haven’t been married, are, Rose said, “totally responsible for themselves and these kinds of gaps,” in workforce history mean “much bigger differences for Social Security.”

Policies like helping women pursue and stay in high-paying, male-dominated fields, increasing enforcement of equal opportunity laws and creating family leave policies that encourage both men and women to take advantage of the time offered to care for relatives could close the gap between men and women’s labor market experiences, the researchers suggest.

The study did offer some hope. The gap in earnings between men and women has narrowed over time as women have become increasingly attached to the labor force. The share of women working full-time year round for 12 out of the 15 years in each cohort studied grew from 11% between 1968 and 1982 to 28% between 2001 and 2015. And women’s earnings grew from 19% of men’s between 1968 and 1982 to 49% during the most recent period measured.

Progress, but still, “a long way from parity,” Rose said.

(This story was originally published on Nov. 28, 2018 and was republished on May 12, 2019.)

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