The wage gap between men and women has a long history, with some twists many people may not realize. 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 when women stepped up to fill needs on the home front.

During World War I, many women took over for the men leaving to fight in the "Great War." When these new workers realized they were to be paid less than a man would be 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—for 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 payments are illegal, regardless of how long ago those pay decisions or practices occurred. 

Although there has been some progress toward closing the gender wage gap since passage of these laws, the results haven't been equally felt by all women. It's also crucial to note the intersectionality between America's gender wage gap and its wage gaps by race, a primary cause of the substantial race-based income inequality in the U.S.. The gender wage gap clearly reflects the nation's history of racial bias.

Key Takeaways

  • As defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the gender pay gap 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 82 cents for every $1 earned on average by men in 2018.
  • Women of color, regardless of education, are often channeled to lower-paying jobs compared to White women operating at a similar skill level

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 82 cents for every $1 earned on average by men in 2018. That's an 18-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 often-overlapping elements. 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.

As an 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, 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.

Intersection of Race and Gender

The 18-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 the Bureau of Labor Statistics data for Q3 of 2020, Asian women had a higher weekly median income than White, Black, and Latinx women in this period. They also earned more than White men, though women across all four racial groups generally earned less than men of the same race. The former 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 Q3 2020 and 2000-19.

These statistics, however, rely on average values and won't paint an exact picture. For example, though Asian American women overall earn more than White men, that's not true of all Asian women: For instance, for every $1 earned by White men in 2018, Filipino women received 83 cents, Tongan women earned 75 cents, and Nepali women received 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

An opportunity gap "refers to 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." Outside of academia, 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 proclaim the importance of networking, which provides participants with a kind of social capital (i.e, a positive product of human interaction on a person's career). Having friends, family members, or other social connections in high places typically makes securing job opportunities much easier. Since this social capital isn't evenly distributed, it creates an opportunity gap.

There are a myriad of other factors that contribute to the overall opportunity gap. One of the more prominent is what's known as occupational segregation, which refers to "one demographic group [being] overrepresented or underrepresented among different kinds of work or different types of jobs." In 2017, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth 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, women of color, regardless of education, are often concentrated in lower-paying jobs compared to White women operating at a similar skill level. 

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, it's still common. Outside of the actual wage gap itself, employers may discriminate by relying on prior salary history during hiring and compensation decisions, which allows previous discriminatory pay decisions to follow women throughout their careers.

Transgender and Nonbinary Wages

In addition to facing a pay gap for their identity and/or sexual orientation, LGBTQIA individuals must also contend with the gender wage gap. 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 same organization, in cooperation with the National Center for Transgender Equality, released a study that same year, which found that 42% 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.

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 it's still all too commonplace. While experiencing sexual harassment isn't exclusive to women, it is disproportionally inflicted upon them. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that approximately 83.2% of the 7,514 sexual harassment charges were filed by women, 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 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, approximately 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 sexual harassment 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, LGBT+ 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 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 rate 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 their 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 being reciprocated globally. 

The Bottom Line

Although the gender wage gap is steady narrowing, it will never truly close without coordinated efforts that address the many factors and biases that continue to enable its existence. Companies have to be 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.