Sometime in last week’s 24/7 churning news cycle, you may have heard about a new study that found that for every dollar an American man earns, an American woman earns 49 cents.
You read that correctly. In this country, for every dollar a man earns, a woman earns 49 cents. For many Americans, both women and men, that is a “hair on fire” statistic. The women’s earnings figure that has been floating around for years is 80 cents compared to men’s dollars, but the new study finds differently.
Entitled “Still a Man’s Labor Market: The Slowly Narrowing Gender Wage Gap,” the study was released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and measured total earnings for all workers who worked in at least one year between 2001 and 2015. The cold, hard fact is that American women faced a wage gap of 51 percent. Said Institute President Heidi Hartmann, “Much ink has been spilled debating whether the commonly cited measure of the wage gap … is an exaggeration due to occupational differences or socalled ‘women’s choices,’ but our analysis finds that we have actually been underestimating the extent of pay inequity in the labor market.”
But, it is complicated. The gap exists for many reasons, including the fact that when women entered the workplace in large numbers in the 20th century, many employers viewed them as “second incomes” for a family whose man of the house was bringing home the real bacon. I know of one Fayetteville employer, now gone to his reward, who routinely asked young women seeking employment with his business whether they were “planning to have a baby any time soon.” Totally illegal and totally true, and the legacy of that sort of paternalism and sexism is still with us.
In addition, women’s family and home responsibilities— what Hartmann called “women’s choices”— continue to be heavier than those of their male partners. Women are more likely to take time off to care for both children and aging relatives. The study found that the cost of taking time out from the workforce, whatever the reason, comes with significant — and increasing — penalties. According to the study, a woman who took a year off during the 2001-2015 study range earned 39 percent less than a woman who did not. In 1968, that number was only 12 percent. Whatever the percentage, though, women’s lost earnings are almost always greater than those of men.
Quality child care is also expensive in our country, meaning that many women lose wages when they stay home with a sick child. Ditto for elder care. Paid family leave is a rarity in most American communities, and since Mom is more likely to take family time than Dad is, it is her earnings that take the hit.
The study suggests that high penalties for time off affects women’s earnings negatively and weakens their attachment to the workplace.
Laws are in place at both the national and state levels addressing equal employment opportunities and discrimination on the job, but reporting and enforcement are spotty at best. This is why many women do not report discrimination and why it continues to pervade our national workplace.
Studies and statistics come and go. Data and interpretation differ. It is clear, though, that women have made strides in both employment and earnings, so any slowdown as the Institute study found is worrisome. We must do better by our women and our families.
What we are really talking about here is the economic well-being or our mothers, our sisters, our wives and those they love and nurture.