Wage Gaps by Gender

Pay inequality has gradually improved, but biases delay progress

Since the 19th century (or maybe the beginning of time), men and women have not been paid equitably for their work. Although there has been some progress toward closing the gender wage gap in the United States since the passage of laws, the results haven't been equally felt by all women.

The intersectionality between America's gender wage gap and its wage gaps by race is a primary cause of the substantial race-based income inequality in the U.S. LGBTQ+ people also face pay gaps in a number of ways.

Key Takeaways

  • Women have typically earned less than men for doing the same type of work.
  • Women of color, regardless of education, are often channeled to lower-paying jobs compared to White women operating at a similar skill level.
  • LGBTQ+ individuals must also contend with the gender wage gap, in addition to facing a pay gap for their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.
  • Though laws have been passed to address the gender wage gap, many factors and biases continue to enable its existence.

The Gender Wage Gap: A Long History

The wage gap between men and women has a long history, with some twists that may be unfamiliar to many. Those who know about "Rosie the Riveter" are likely well aware that during World War II, American women entered the workforce en masse, often into traditionally male-dominated fields, as men left to fight overseas. But this wasn't the first great American war for which women stepped up to attend to needs on the home front.

During World War I, many women took over for the men who were leaving to fight in "The Great War." When these new workers realized they were going to be paid less than a man would for the same labor, several strikes ensued. In WWII, demands for wage equality returned in force, with trade unions and women's organizations becoming more heavily involved.

All the same, it took some 20 years for these demands to bear fruit in actual laws. The first pillar was the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which included requiring that men and women receive the same pay for "substantially equal" work in the same workplace. A year later, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 expanded upon this legislative groundwork by banning compensation discrimination due to "race, color, religion, sex or national origin."

It took 45 years, however—and a Supreme Court dissent by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—before the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which amended prior changes to several federal laws protecting the rights of workers and clarified that all inequitable, discriminatory pay is illegal, regardless of how long ago those pay decisions or practices occurred.

Understanding the Wage Gap

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a wage gap is "the difference between the average pay of two different groups of people." The gender pay gap then, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is "the difference between median earnings of men and women relative to median earnings of men."

Per the most recent data from the United States Census Bureau, women on average earned 83 cents for every dollar earned on average by men in 2020. That's a 17-cent difference with a notable impact. Working women overall earned approximately $545.7 billion less than male workers in 2019. If the wage gap didn't exist, working women would've received an additional $9,613.13 per person.

Gender wage gaps can be attributed to a multitude of elements that often overlap. For instance, although differences in education or geographic location do contribute to wage inequality, gendered pay gaps still persist in their absence. Additionally, many of the potential contributing factors that might seem independent of a worker's gender—such as differences in experience or hours worked—can themselves be the results of societal gender bias.

For example, traditional gender role expectations establish housekeeping and parenting as the primary responsibilities of women, which can leave them with fewer hours available to work and less industry experience than men. Benefits such as paid family leave and affordable childcare encourage mothers to return to work. Yet, our research has found that as of March 2019, only 19% of civilian workers had access to employer-sponsored paid family leave. Additionally, persistent income inequality based on factors other than gender can limit which groups of women are able to afford services like childcare.

The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic could increase the gender pay gap during the recession and throughout a recovery, according to research published in Aug. 2020 by the National Bureau of Economic Research. But in the long run, the research predicts that the gap will decrease due in part to the so-called new normal caused by the pandemic. For example, it points to a “weakening of the gender norms” that will result in a more equal distribution of childcare between women and men.

Intersection of Race and Gender

The 17-cent wage gap isn't experienced equally by all women; some women make even less as a result of additional discrimination against other demographic characteristics. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data for Q4 2021, Asian women had a higher weekly median income than White, Black, and Latinx women for this period.

Though women across all four of these racial groups generally earned less than men of their same race, in Q4 2021, Asian women earned more than White men. This wasn't always the case. Between 2000 and 2019, though Asian women earned more than all other women, they had a lower weekly median income than White men. Asian men were the only demographic to earn more than White men in both Q4 2021 and 2000–2020.

These statistics, however, rely on average values and won't paint an exact picture. For example, though Asian American women earn more than White men overall, that's not true of all Asian women: For instance, for every dollar earned by White men in 2018, Filipino women earned 83 cents, Tongan women earned 75 cents, and Nepali women earned 50 cents.

Meanwhile, Black and Latinx women both have lower weekly median incomes than White women, with Latinx women earning the least out of any group. The fact that most women of color are experiencing a larger wage gap is indicative of the compounding negative impacts of gender bias and racial bias on their income.

Gendered Opportunity Gaps

Education reformers refer to an opportunity gap as "the ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, familial situations, or other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment for certain groups of students." But outside of the education field, the same basic concept also applies to the obstacles workers face as a result of their demographic characteristics.

Teachers and other kinds of mentors often point to the importance of networking, which provides participants with a kind of social capital (i.e, a positive product of human interaction for a person's career). Having friends, family members, or other social connections in high places typically makes securing job opportunities much easier. Because this social capital isn't evenly distributed, it creates an opportunity gap.

Myriad other factors contribute to the overall opportunity gap. One of the more prominent is what's known as occupational segregation, which is "a group's overrepresentation or underrepresentation in certain jobs or fields of work," as the Washington Center for Equitable Growth puts it. In 2020, the Center found that fields dominated by men tend to be higher-paying, regardless of skill or education level.

Meanwhile, societal pressure and structural sexism may influence the career paths that some women take. In particular, Black and Latinx women, regardless of education, are often concentrated in lower-paying jobs compared to White women operating at a similar skill level. For instance, a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center indicates that most women of color continue to have much lower representation in lucrative STEM careers.

And of course, there's also the continuing sexism and misogyny in the job market. Even though the Equal Pay Act made gender-based discrimination illegal, unfortunately, it may still be common. Outside of the actual wage gap itself, employers may discriminate by relying on a person's salary history during hiring and compensation, which perpetuates pay disparities. To thwart discrimination, some states in recent years have banned the practice of employers asking job candidates about their salary history.

If you believe that you are being paid less than your co-workers because of your race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability you can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The complaint process is detailed on the agency’s website.

Transgender and Nonbinary Wage Gap

In addition to facing discrimination for their gender identity and/or sexual orientation, LGBTQ+ individuals may also contend with the wage gaps for their identities. The intersection of these two socioeconomic divides can result in unique circumstances for workers outside the gender binary. For instance, a 2008 study found that the average earnings for transgender women fell by approximately 32% after transitioning. Conversely, the average earnings for transgender men actually increased post-transition, albeit only by 1.5%.

Additionally, several transgender men in an earlier study reported gaining additional authority and respect at work following their transition. Other researchers found that transgender women had trouble maintaining employment, with more recent data indicating that many leave high-paying jobs for lower-paying ones due to workplace discrimination. Some transgender men, however, have reported having trouble being accepted at work, particularly if they lacked an "undisputed masculine appearance."

That said, transgender and transitioning individuals may face wage and opportunity gaps regardless of their gender identity. A 2011 report from the National LGBTQ Task Force found that 15% of transgender persons had a household income of less than $10,000, which equates to a poverty rate nearly four times higher than that of the general population at the time. The Center for American Progress released a study that same year, which found that 44% of transgender workers were passed over for a job, 26% were fired, and 23% were denied a promotion due to discrimination.

Unfortunately, very little research has been conducted on how the wage gap impacts nonbinary and genderqueer people. In terms of the opportunity gap, however, a 2016 study found that nonbinary individuals assigned male at birth (AMAB) typically faced hiring discrimination, while those assigned female at birth (AFAB) more often experienced discriminatory treatment within their workplaces. Additionally, nonbinary people as a whole were more likely to have been denied a promotion, though they generally have fared better than transgender women.

Research on the pay gap LGBTQ+ Americans face is scarce, particularly when it comes to addressing diversity within the community. This is due in part to a lack of data collected by the federal government. The 2020 Census, for example, was the first U.S. Census Bureau survey to collect data on same-sex couples, but only did so on those living together. And this was the only question that addressed the LGBTQ+ demographic.

The Effect of Sexual Harassment

Although inappropriate sexual remarks and physical advances in the workplace are prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, much like the wage gap itself, sexual harassment is still all too commonplace. Though experiencing it isn't exclusive to women, it disproportionally affects them. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that approximately 83.2% of the 6,587 sexual harassment charges were filed by women in 2020, compared to 16.8% filed by men.

In addition to emotional harm, sexual harassment can negatively impact a woman's earnings. For instance, a report published by the National Partnership for Women & Families in March 2020 found that women in workplaces where sexual harassment isn't reported may be less comfortable negotiating salaries and raises. Incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace often go unreported due to fears of retaliation, termination, or inaction. In a 2018 Morning Consult survey, almost half of women who reported sexual harassment to their bosses or human resources departments were dissatisfied with the results.

Sexual harassment can affect job performance, workplace advancement, and career choices. Women who experience it in the workplace often report heightened anxiety and depression, which can affect productivity and overall performance. According to a 2017 report in the Gender & Society journal, women experiencing workplace sexual harassment are 6.5 times more likely to change jobs, often to one of lower quality and/or pay, while a 2018 New America study found that women could be pushed out of entire industries, amplifying occupational segregation.

Additionally, women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities may face both greater financial consequences and an increased risk of retaliation, doubt, victim-blaming, and other prejudiced responses for reporting sexual harassment.

Gender Gaps on a Global Scale

Each year, the World Economic Forum studies and indexes worldwide gender-based disparities as part of its annual Global Gender Gap Report. In addition to its overall assessment of wage and opportunity gaps, the Global Gender Gap Index is comprised of four comprehensive subindexes, each measuring a different type of gender disparity across 153 countries. These include:

  • Economic Participation and Opportunity: This index measures wage equality between women and men for similar work, plus the difference in estimated earned income, labor force participation, and the number of professional and technical workers as well as legislators, senior officials, and managers between men and women. The Economic Participation and Opportunity gap is the second largest, at 42%.
  • Educational Attainment: This index measures the difference in net primary, secondary, and tertiary enrollment rates as well as literacy rates between women and men. The Educational Attainment gap is the second smallest, at 4%.
  • Health and Survival: This index measures the difference in healthy life expectancy between women and men as well as the sex ratio at birth. The Health and Survival gap is the closest to closing, with only 3% remaining.
  • Political Empowerment: This index measures the difference between the number of women and men in parliament seats and at the ministerial level, as well as the number of years women have served as heads of state over the past five decades. The Political Empowerment gap is the farthest from closing, with 75% still remaining.


The percentage of the overall Global Gender Gap that has yet to be closed.

Outside of topics that have already been covered in this article, these subindexes measure several additional gender discrepancies that aren't always considered when discussing the wage gap—despite the socioeconomic impact they can have on both the personal level and on conditions that enable discriminatory income differences. For example, if women are denied a higher quality of healthcare, it may impact their ability to work should they become sick or injured. Additionally, it could prove difficult to enact effective legislative changes to reduce an income gap if those with political power benefit from the current status quo.

Although each country is given its own score, the global average values make it easier to quantify how the more abstract opportunity gaps have changed over time. For instance, the 2020 report found that the overall index and three out of the four subindexes had improved from 2019. The only one that decreased was the Economic Participation and Opportunity subindex, indicating that, even as the U.S.'s wage gap continues to narrow, this change isn't reflected globally.

The Bottom Line

Although the gender wage gap has narrowed over the years, it will never truly close without coordinated efforts that address the many factors and biases that continue to enable its existence. Companies have to get involved in this by ensuring both that all employees are being paid a fair wage for their labor and that the workplace itself is a safe environment for all women.

Article Sources
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