Why Are We Still Talking About The Gender Pay Gap?

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Equal pay has been a topic of discussion for over 80 years, so why are we still talking about it? Complicated history, social norms, and ingrained business practices all play a part.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963, an act brought forward to protect against unjust wage discrimination based on sex, was enacted on June 10th of 1963 by John F. Kennedy as an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, the issue was first addressed when The National War Labor Board first advocated for equal pay in 1942, with an equal pay act proposed in 1945. The talk of equal pay fizzled out until an astonishing eighteen years later when The Equal Pay Act was finally signed into law. Now, almost sixty years later, has the EPA’s implementation been as successful as once hoped for?

The average American women’s salary has risen relative to men since the EPA’s enactment, from 59.7% of men’s earnings in 1979 to 82% in the most recent study done in 2019. This is a wholly disappointing mere 22.3% increase within the span of 40 years; but why has the implementation of the EPA moved at such a slow pace? While this law was a good “first step”, as President Kennedy said the day he signed it, the obscurity of the topic of equal wages at the time caused many loopholes, with the biggest problem being the vague language used in the act.

The EPA states that men are allowed to be paid higher wages than their female counterparts as long as it’s “a differential based on any factor other than sex”. This vague language makes it nearly impossible to prove a woman is paid less due solely to gender. In addition, employers found in violation of this are forced to only pay two years of retroactive pay to a plaintiff— a very minor punishment for larger organizations and unlikely to deter gender discrimination in the future.
After being introduced in house to Congress in January of 2021, the first amendment to the EPA fully passed house in April 2021: The Paycheck Fairness Act. This amendment expanded the language significantly by striking the broad statement of “any factor other than sex” and replaced it with, “a bona fide factor other than sex, such as education, training, or experience”. In addition to this change, the act also goes on to define what ‘sex’ includes, such as: pregnancy and childbirth, sexual orientation and gender identity, and sex characteristics. It also explicitly defines sexual orientation and gender identity, a huge advancement from what the EPA once included.

While this is a big step in the right direction, other issues are still at play here. For instance, several studies have shown that women and minorities do not typically negotiate their salary in comparison to men. A study of MBA students at Carnegie-Mellon University found that male students took the step of negotiating their first offer 57% of the time compared to a shocking mere 4% for female students. Why is this? The biggest culprit here is societal norms.

Studies have shown that women have been more successful if they’re negotiating on behalf of someone else. In other words, women are not inherently soft negotiators, but are viewed more favorably when they’re not negotiating for themselves—in part because of societal expectations that women be “nice” and not too “forceful” or “masculine”. In order to solve this issue, what’s needed is a global awareness of “ask gaps” and the societal standards that perpetuate them. Once this is acknowledged, companies should end the practice of basing salary offers on an employee’s previous salary, which only perpetuates the pay gap further, especially since women are typically coming in with a lower history of salaries. There are a number of states that have banned employers from asking salary history questions and early evidence has shown that this has helped in reducing the gender pay gap, as well as the minority pay gap.

Although we have made significant improvements since the implementation of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2021, we still have a way to go to ensure complete, fairness and eliminate discrimination based on gender and race. While the EPA and PFA have made improvements, it seems like the biggest drawback is the societal norms unfairly placed on women and minorities. The most crucial way to help eliminate the pay gap is not only for society to change its archaic views, but for women and minorities to know their worth, and not be afraid to negotiate their salaries and expect more. Once this ultimately happens more regularly and becomes the norm, one can hope that society will slowly catch on and the pay gap will be no more.



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