The gender pay gap goes way beyond 80 cents on the dollar

Forget that 80 cents on the male dollar women supposedly make. While that’s the gap women who are working full-time and year-round face, if you look across the years, women fall further behind. A recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that, looking across the most recent 15 years of data for all workers, women earned just 49 percent of what men did. That’s because women are more likely than men to take time out of the paid workforce, and they pay the price:

For those who took just one year off from work, women’s annual earnings were 39 percent lower than women who worked all 15 years between 2001 and 2015, a much higher cost than women faced in the time period beginning in 1968, when one year out of work resulted in a 12 percent cut in earnings. While men are also penalized for time out of the workforce, women’s earnings losses for time out are almost always greater than men’s.

People often cite women’s time off from paid work as a justification for the 80-cents-on-the-dollar version of the pay gap. Hey, it’s women’s fault they make less, that logic goes. But this reason for women’s lower earnings is just as bad as direct discrimination. Women don’t only face discrimination by employers—though we do face that. Women don’t only face a society that values jobs dominated by women less than jobs dominated by men and pays accordingly—though we do face that.

No, women also face the expectation that we will care for everyone—children, parents, grandparents, husbands—without pay, and that if we can’t handle that on top of paid work, it’s our individual problem to deal with. This certainly isn’t women’s fault, but it’s also not the fault of the children or infirm elders we’re caring for to the detriment of our careers. (It may, however, be the fault of men who fail to step up and do their share.) It’s not even the fault of employers (at least the ones who aren’t discriminating against us). The biggest, most important ways to fix this are the government’s business, and the IWPR report lays out a number of them:

  • We need paid family leave, and not just a few weeks of it.
  • We need subsidies for high-quality child care. That’s a two-parter: subsidies and expanded availability of excellent child care.
  • Where are the supports for women who are caring for elders, often for more years than they care for young children? “Such supports could include greater subsidies for paid care for the frail and ill elderly, paid family leave to help working caregivers, and improved retirement and Social Security benefits for those who reduce working time in order to provide child or elder care.”
  • Unions help reduce gender pay gaps, so union-friendly policies would improve the situation.

Some of this is already happening at the state level, but not enough, and the basic ability to stay in the workforce shouldn’t be a state-by-state matter. Republicans, of course, will stand in the way of such advances for as long as they possibly can.

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