DMT Beauty Transformation: Everything You’ve Ever Wondered About Equal Pay Day, Explained
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Everything You’ve Ever Wondered About Equal Pay Day, Explained

March 31, 2020DMT Beauty

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Has March 2020 felt longer than a century for you, too? You’re not alone. We should all take a deep breath, but we’re not quite done yet — March 31 is Equal Pay Day. This year, with a public health crisis crystallizing the inadequacies in U.S. workers’ rights and protections, the gender pay gap is yet another reminder of how women are hit particularly hard by inequality.

In observation of Equal Pay Day 2020, we’re diving deep into the gap with data and insight from Shannon Williams, director of Equal Pay Today (a project of Equal Rights Advocates), and Dr. C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. What exactly is the gender pay gap, and why is it so damn hard to close?

What Is Equal Pay Day?

Equal Pay Day is the average of how many extra days into the new year that women would have to work in order to earn as much as men did in the previous year. “March 31 is sort of the marquee day where we really lift up this issue,” Mason says. Beyond the generally observed date, there are also demographically specific Equal Pay Days throughout 2020:

For AAPI women, it was February 11.
For Black women, August 13.
For Native American women, October 1.
For Latinx women, October 29.

While pay gaps for women of color are calculated by comparing their earnings to white men’s, the overall gender pay gap (currently around 82 cents) compares all women’s earnings to all men’s earnings.

These dates offer only the broadest view of where we stand on income inequality, however, and the gaps may actually be worse than they appear. The numbers only take into account earnings for full-time workers, and are calculated using census data. “The census gives us a limited picture, because the way it’s framed has made some communities very fearful of participating,” says Williams.

The story becomes more complicated the more we zoom in. For one, the pay gap differs from state to state and city to city. “Even within the different disaggregated groups within these communities of color, it varies,” says Williams. “For example, Latina women’s Equal Pay Day is at the end of the year. But for some groups of Latinas, it’s even past that.” Latinx women from Central America, for example, make around 47.3% of what white men make.

There are other groups that remain underrepresented in discussions of equal pay — such as, “women who have different kinds of barriers to pay equity or discrimination in the labor market,” notes Mason. “So we’re focusing on formerly incarcerated women, transgender women, and immigrant women whose voices also get drowned out of these conversations.”

Formerly incarcerated women are not only paid lower wages; they’re much more likely to be unemployed. Pay-gap data for trans women is scarce, but one oft-cited study found that their paychecks shrank by about a third after they transitioned. Immigrant women also earn less than native-born women in America, and a 2015 study found that 20% earned less than a living wage.

Debunking Gender Pay-Gap Myths

Some people deny the existence of a pay gap at all. Others downplay it, or blame it on the poor choices of individual women, deflecting focus from the systems that put women at a disadvantage. Ahead, we looked into why their arguments don’t hold up.

Myth 1: Women aren’t negotiating well
This myth deals with direct pay discrimination, which is a major contributor to the pay gap. Maybe the problem is that women simply aren’t asking for higher pay, critics say. “That’s not the case,” says Williams. “Women ask for raises just as often as men. We’re just less likely to receive them.”

She also takes issue with the fact that this argument puts the onus on women, and Mason agrees. “We’re removing responsibility from the employers to do the right thing,” she says. Should women have to ask to be paid equally before the idea occurs to employers?

Myth 2: When you control for education, there’s no pay gap
This myth suggests that when women attain higher levels of education, the gap disappears. Nothing about this is true. “We still see, within gender and race, wage gaps for women with postgraduate degrees, law degrees, medical degrees,” says Williams. 

In fact, the pay gap is generally lower between men and women who have only a high school diploma. This is partly because they’re more likely to have lower-paying jobs, where the minimum wage sets a narrower pay range. In higher-paying jobs, there’s more room to pay women less. A study published in 2018 by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that Black women with bachelor’s degrees earned, on average, less than white men with associate’s degrees. When it comes to master’s degrees and higher, the gap between white men’s annual earnings ($124,000) and Black women’s ($69,000) amounts to a loss of $55,000 every year.

Myth 3: Women choose to work less or take time off
This is true on its face — women work fewer hours than men, and we’re more likely to be the primary caretakers of children. Women also need to take paid time off for pregnancy, and having children results in a notable decrease in wages. These are all barriers to participating in the workforce at the same rate as men.

But the fact that women face these barriers doesn’t justify the pay gap. It only shows how the workforce is still structured as if men are the only people working. “We know that the workforce has changed so much and that women make up more than 50% of the workforce,” says Mason. “But we still act like this is the 1950s, where men are the primary breadwinner.” Unless the solution is to expect no one to have and raise children, it’s on employers to provide better paid family leave and flexible work for both men and women.

Myth 4: Women choose low-paying careers
This myth implies that if women were smarter about the demands of the labor market, the wage gap wouldn’t exist. We’d all get STEM degrees or work in finance or law, or become Hollywood actors and professional (male) athletes. “You’re assuming that because I chose a particular profession, I deserve to be paid less,” Williams points out.

The service sector, home care and child care, early education, and social work are among the lowest-paying industries in the U.S. They also all happen to be female-dominated. An astounding 89% of nursing, psychiatric, and home-health-aide occupations are filled by women. To suggest that women are making poor choices by performing essential service-sector and health-care work is especially absurd now, when we see them on the frontlines of a global pandemic.

The question isn’t why women are choosing these jobs; it’s why anyone pretends that these places don’t deserve better pay. Often, women in these sectors are working below the poverty line. According to IWPR findings, about 62% of maids and housekeeping cleaners and 58% of fast-food preparers and servers “live in households with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold.”

“Women’s work” — whatever that exactly entails — is seen as unimportant. Why else would industries start paying less as they become female-dominated? Occupational segregation remains a formidable enemy to equal pay, and even when women do enter male-dominated fields, they aren’t welcomed with open arms. Male software developers make an average of $1,920 per week, but women in this field make only 89.5% of that. Among chief executives (72.9% male), women make about 80.5% of what men do. “They face a number of different barriers, which also includes lower pay than men in those sectors, but also harassment and discrimination,” says Mason.

How Can We Close The Pay Gap?

Both Williams and Mason say that legislation and policies are key. Securing better labor protections in general, like raising the minimum wage, would shrink the pay gap. “States that have a high gender pay gap are also states that are less likely to have pro-union policies or regulations,” says Mason. In the absence of unions or pro-worker policies, “there’s no accountability for employers,” she says. 

In 2018, the states where the pay gap was widest were Mississippi, West Virginia, Idaho, Louisiana, and Alabama. “They actually have very hostile policies around worker rights and pay,” says Mason. All of them have “right-to-work” laws, which can prevent unionized shops from requiring new employees to join the union, and also prevent unions from requiring employers to hire only union workers. These laws blunt the power of unions and tend to result in lower wages.

Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act would also go a long way. Among other things, it would bar employers from using your salary history to determine your wages and from retaliating against you for discussing your pay. “This would really help close all the loopholes in the Equal Pay Act,” says Williams. After all, we can encourage individual women to be transparent about their pay, but it’s difficult to create a movement out of it unless every state has laws protecting your right to pay transparency. Mississippi, for example, currently has no equal-pay laws.

But it’s not just labor laws that would help close the gap. “When we look at the bottom states, especially Alabama and Mississippi, we can see that there’s clear attacks on women’s reproductive autonomy, which influences the careers they choose to go into, their experiences in the workplace, and whether or not they’ll face workplace discrimination because of pregnancy,” says Mason.

Ultimately, the wage gap isn’t an issue that can be summed up with just a quick quote about women making 82 cents of a man’s dollar. It’s an enormous economic injustice — which amounts to 18 cents, often more, being taken from women. “This is money missing for women to put food on their tables, especially for single working mothers, to pay rent with, health care, send their kids to college with,” says Mason.

“My daughter, who’s 10, and her daughter won’t see pay equity in their lifetimes as women of color,” she continues. “That’s two generations from now — come on. I think that we need to really start being proactive and seeing this as an urgent issue.”

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