Closing the Gender Pay Gap

The U.S. gender wage gap may be narrower than ever, but it's still over DOUBLE the size of other industrialized nations'.

In the past 30 years, women have made huge strides forward in the workplace. In the 1980s, women made 60 cents for every dollar earned by men. By 2015, that gap had narrowed to 78 cents on the dollar.

While greater educational gains for women and a climb up the career ladder have both helped to narrow the wage gap, there's still work to be done. The U.S. wage gap is 2.5 times as big as the wage gap in other industrialized countries -- even when factors like family and child care are taken into account.

It's a big problem, and it's sparked a big debate. Organizations like medical giant Merck and even U.S. Soccer are now facing wage discrimination claims, as women band together to sue for their right to be paid equally for equal work.

How can we solve the problem and close the wage gap together?

Here's what we know:

1. The law is not enough.

"Equal pay for equal work" has been the law since 1963, when the Equal Pay Act mandated that workers who do the same job must be paid the same wage, regardless of their gender. A recent executive action from the White House requires any company with more than 100 employees to report its pay data by gender.

Yet the pay gap persists. Why?

For one thing, federal law currently puts the onus on women to bring lawsuits showing discrimination -- and it severely curtails the amount of time they have to discover the discrimination and file suit. Retribution against female employees who ask for pay data is a problem in some workplaces as well.

While some states, including California, have taken steps to address this problem, others have not, resulting in uneven enforcement and a persistent wage gap.

2. Jobs are gendered, too.

Over the past several decades, women have been encouraged to close the gender pay gap by entering "male-dominated fields" and more highly paid professions -- and while this has helped to close the gap, it hasn't solved the problem.

At least 10 to 33 percent of the pay gap, according to an estimate by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, results from the fact that we simply pay some workers less. Sociological studies have revealed that jobs that are compensated less tend to be associated more closely with "women's work" -- things like child care, teaching and nursing.

And there's a problem on the other end of the gendered-jobs spectrum, too. The highest-paying fields -- including finance, executive management, and tech -- are repeatedly reported to be hostile environments for women. If the environment is too harsh for women to do their best work, they're likely to walk away, no matter how good the pay is. Top performers gravitate toward positions and companies in which they can thrive, no matter their gender.

3. Women still do most of the labor at home.

Studies show that women, as a whole, work fewer wage-earning hours than men every year. One way to close the pay gap, then, might be to encourage women to work more hours and give them opportunities to take on additional projects or full-time positions.

Unfortunately, many women turn these opportunities down not because they don't want to do more wage-earning work, but because they can't take on any more labor. They're already doing more than their fair share of household labor, including cleaning, cooking, errands and child care. When it comes to accounting for this 10 percent of the gender pay gap, offering flextime to male workers in order to contribute at home might go further than encouraging female workers to simply do more work.

4. Younger women have closed the gap more closely than older women.

Among workers ages 25 to 34, the gender wage gap is 93 cents to the dollar. What happened?

Part of the reason the gap widens for older women is due to what's known as the "motherhood penalty," in which women who have children take time off, reduce their hours or even quit work in order to tackle most or all of the laborious tasks associated with raising kids.

But even when mothers stay at work full time, they take a hit. One study found that women's earnings decrease four percent for each child they have -- while men's earnings increase six percent.

While companies can help close this gap by offering policies that support families with working parents, like paid family leave, flextime and child care subsidies, changes in policies aren't the only answer. As a society, we also need to take a hard look at our assumptions about working mothers and how they line up with our assumptions about working fathers. Valuing your top performers should be a gender-neutral practice; anything else is discrimination.