Why is the gender pay gap in the United States (1:0.77) so large in the United States despite there being civil rights legislation against discrimination in wages based on sex? Is it due to poor enforcement? A flaw within the bill itself? etc?

  • 5
    I'll just say broadly that its very hard to prove gender pay discrimination in a court of law. Is she paid less because she is a woman or because she isn't as efficient? From the outside it might seem obvious but legally speaking it can be hard to prove Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 4:27
  • 2
    That's nonsense @DavidGrinberg since we would expect a random distribution to be a broadly equal 50/50 split of inefficiency across men and women. We are talking about macro data not a single data point. A single woman may be inefficient but the female species as a whole...no. Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 10:23
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    @Venture2099 The problem is that there are other factors involved including the kind of jobs, the pool of employees, the prior education, the tendency to take care of children or work less overtime, the consistency of working as opposed to family care, coming back to the work force after a gap ... Picking a raw number is not sufficient. Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 14:16
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    @Venture2099 How is that nonsense? He explicitly said he's talking about single data points, because that's all the court will look at in a specific case. He even agreed with you on the macro, "from the outside it may seem obvious." Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 15:48
  • 1
    The title and the question body are different things. Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 17:13

3 Answers 3

  • Why is the gender pay gap so large in the United States despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963?

    Because it isn't.

    In short, the much-cited "77 cents" figure is from the "lies, big lies, and statistics" department of political propaganda.

    The real unexplained wage gap is 94%

    The AAUW has now joined ranks with serious economists who find that when you control for relevant differences between men and women (occupations, college majors, length of time in workplace) the wage gap narrows to the point of vanishing. The 23-cent gap is simply the average difference between the earnings of men and women employed “full time.” What is important is the “adjusted” wage gap-the figure that controls for all the relevant variables. That is what the new AAUW study explores. (source: Huffington pos, citing Association of University Women (AAUW) study "Graduating to a Pay Gap")

    The AAUW researchers looked at male and female college graduates one year after graduation. After controlling for several relevant factors (though some were left out, as we shall see), they found that the wage gap narrowed to only 6.6 cents.

  • So, is it due to discrimination?

    As per above, of the "23 cents" gap, 17 is 100% definitely has nothing to do with discrimination at all.

    The researchers honestly admit that they don't know how to explain the remaining 6% (as in, at the moment they can't attribute it to discrimination).

    How much of that is attributable to discrimination? As AAUW spokesperson Lisa Maatz candidly said in an NPR interview, “We are still trying to figure that out.”

    Interestingly, if you look at younger generation, at least in the UK, not only does the pay gap disappear, but it reverses itself to men's disadvantage:

    The latest report from the Office of National Statistics is even more conclusive: the gender pay gap effectively doesn’t exist between the ages of 18 and 39. Between the ages of 22 and 29, women marginally out earn men.

  • So what can possibly explain it? Without outright assuming it's discrimination due to your own political biases?

    • The same Telegraph article linked in the last paragraph has a possible explanation:

      However, it's impossible to ignore the fact that men's wages start outstripping women in the years after most people have children.
      And if that hasn’t convinced you, research by Essex University and the London School of Economics has indicated that lesbians out earn straight women.
      All the evidence points towards a gender pay gap that is, in part, driven by childcare rather than sexism. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about closing the pay gap – but it does make the situation more complex.

    • Another interesting theory I heard proposed (though never saw any research conclusively backing it up) was that one possible factor is much higher prevalence of males among high-functioning autism diagnoses. There are plausible reasons to suppose that there might be causative explanations.

    • Additional theory (again with no research support I'm aware of) rests on the fact that men generally are more risk-taking than women.

      If a risk is taken and pays off, that makes the person high-performer and they usually would get paid more.

      If a risk is taken and fails, you usually don't get paid less (although in edge cases you get fired but that's rare unless one was Lehman Brothers level reckless).

      To be successful, a company needs to be agile - which means internal experimentation and risk taking.

  • 5
    @AdamRen - the problem isn't the data. It's the interpretation of that data.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 12:48
  • 4
    @blip - no, it means the people on your side made an arbitrary definition of something; and actually practically using that definition (see Obama's SOTU) to insist that things need to be fixed. If your side used the honest terminology (there's a difference between aggregate average pay that depends on people's individual choices of 23 cents), i wouldn't mind that at all.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:05
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    @blip should a nurse be payed as much as an aerospace engineer? Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:15
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    @blip - random data outside of context with misleading label on that data is a political thing. That's like saying "we have incarceration gap" because more men are incarcerated. Fully ignoring that men commit more crimes.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:16
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    @blip - because (1) engineering is a booring geeky thing that most girls eschew. And it's far from proven that this eschewing is 100% cultural as opposed to evolutionary. (2) because much of engineering requires OCD/ASD traits that are much naturally easier for more men due to higher prevalence of those mental patterns among males in the first place. There are much less girls who at age 17 would voluntarily sit at a PC coding from 5pm to 10pm until the lab closes - that's NOT social pressure; that's personal choice.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:30

There isn't a flaw in the bill. The $0.77 metric is a raw number. It sounds good, but it fails to take into account any other factors

This Slate article helps to explain the flaws

The official Bureau of Labor Department statistics show that the median earnings of full-time female workers is 77 percent of the median earnings of full-time male workers. But that is very different than “77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men.” The latter gives the impression that a man and a woman standing next to each other doing the same job for the same number of hours get paid different salaries. That’s not at all the case. “Full time” officially means 35 hours, but men work more hours than women. That’s the first problem: We could be comparing men working 40 hours to women working 35.

There's another problem with the metric as well. Women tend to value less hours and flexibility over men. Taking that into account narrows the gap considerably, if not all but removes it (emphasis mine)

But every “full-time” worker, as the BLS notes, is not the same: Men were almost twice as likely as women to work more than 40 hours a week, and women almost twice as likely to work only 35 to 39 hours per week. Once that is taken into consideration, the pay gap begins to shrink. Women who worked a 40-hour week earned 88% of male earnings.

Then there is the issue of marriage and children. The BLS reports that single women who have never married earned 96% of men’s earnings in 2012.

While women might be facing discrimination in individual cases, but as a whole there's no one single problem you can point to. Back to the Slate article

The point here is not that there is no wage inequality. But by focusing our outrage into a tidy, misleading statistic we’ve missed the actual challenges. It would in fact be much simpler if the problem were rank sexism and all you had to do was enlighten the nation’s bosses or throw the Equal Pay Act at them. But the 91 percent statistic suggests a much more complicated set of problems. Is it that women are choosing lower-paying professions or that our country values women’s professions less? And why do women work fewer hours? Is this all discrimination or, as economist Claudia Goldin likes to say, also a result of “rational choices” women make about how they want to conduct their lives.

  • 1
    How is 88% gap after considering hours worked " all but remov[ing]" the gap? And do you know if the 88% is comparing women who work 40 hours with men in general, or with men who also work 40 hours? (And while I don't necessarily think that the percentage is wrong, it would also be great to have a better source than a right-wing think tank)
    – tim
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 10:08
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    While I agree it's not 100%, the point is that people want to take whatever number it is and use it to mandate equal pay, as if the number were the result of a massive conspiracy to underpay women, when the truth is far more complex
    – Machavity
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 13:08
  • This is a typical push back on the wage gap argument. It's not technically incorrect but plays down the broad issue of the broad social discrimination that has happened for decades. For example, that men and women have different views of work hours is part of that built-up cultural discrimination.
    – user1530
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 17:11
  • @blip I've seen this played out in real life. I know a woman who took a job with lower pay intentionally. The other job would have paid more because of seasonal overtime, while the one she took offered more flexibility. In other words, she makes less money because she made a choice about what was important to her. The flipside of your argument is that you're saying that women are inherently unfairly and only the government (and not women themselves) can make sure it's actually equal. I think many women would find such a position insulting
    – Machavity
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 17:33
  • @Machavity I'm not saying that at all. I'm saying there is a gap because of these cultural differences between men and women that have been in place for centuries. Legislation can't fix that.
    – user1530
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 17:50

The issue is that the pay gap (77/100 being the typical ratio) isn't caused by companies literally cutting the pay of women by 23%.

If it were, anti-discrimination legislation would make that a quick fix.

The issue is that the pay gap is a cultural side effect and is related to a plethora of cultural norms (both past and in some cases, still present):

  • going back 100 years + there was a cultural norm that higher education was for men, not women
  • for many decades (edit: er, centuries) women didn't have the right to vote
  • for many decades the cultural norm was that men go to work and are the breadwinners, women stay at home and are the home makers
  • biologically, women have children. This often took them out of the workplace (both voluntarily and involuntarily)
  • cultural norms are slow to change and even in the past couple of decades there's still a push for women to be the child rearers, men to to the breadwinners
  • in the US, we have limited job protection for pregnancy
  • in the US, we have no mandated paid maternity leave (one of the few countries on the planet that don't)
  • and, yes, some workplace discrimination for sure.*

So to answer the question, legislation, itself, can't fix the gap given all the legacy cultural baggage that has contributed to it. Any anti-discrimination legislation is merely a step in moving those cultural norms in a particular direction.

* since it came up in so many comments, I thought I'd list out some entertaining books, movies and TV shows that deal with this topic. If nothing else, they are fun to watch:

  • North Country - movie about discrimination against women in the mining industry
  • Hidden Figures - movie that shows the challenges women--specifically black women--had competing in the male dominated work force.
  • Mad Men - Fictional, but based on society at the time. Goes into a lot of details of the different challenges women faces in the workforce (in this case, in the advertising industry)
  • Shoot Like a Girl - A book about women in combat...including how the military is changing their opinions on barring women from combat roles.

And there are literally dozens of other examples. I guess the topic makes for great dramatic entertainment!

  • 5
    How is women's right to vote in 19th century and before related to 2016 wages? How does women not getting higher education 100 years ago related to 2016 wages, when virtually every woman in the workforce is of an age when that wasn't the cultural norm anymore.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:07
  • Bullet points 3-5 are valid and hard to dispute, but might be worth adding some citations even so. But bullet 8 requires either proof of "for sure" as well as honest proposal of how much of that is "for sure".
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:12
  • 1
    @user4012 that you don't believe history plays a part in society is not something I have the energy to debate. As for FMLA, there's no pay with FMLA.
    – user1530
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:14
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    sorry, you're correct. FMLA is unpaid - i was totally fooled by my anecdotal familiarity as I never saw a company where it was unpaid. But that isn't the law, apparently.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:41
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    But on a more serious note, the issue in the military was that because women were explicitly banned from many roles, women were not able to get the same promotions as their male counterparts. It wasn't an issue of choice...it was an issue of lack of opportunity.
    – user1530
    Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 18:48

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