Few feminist topics are argued about more extensively or more heatedly than the wage gap. At the center of this discussion stands one sentence: “Women earn 79 cents for every dollar that men make.” Germany observes ‘Equal Pay Day’ in every March, marking 21% of the year – the amount of time that women ‘work for free’ annually.

But how accurate are these numbers? Is it really possible that women are getting paid so much less for doing the exact same jobs as men?

When comparing the median wages of all full-time workers, it is proven that women make only 79 cents of every dollar a man makes in the United States –  a gap of exactly 21%. In some countries, like South Korea, this gap is much more significant, at over 36%, while in others, like Luxembourg, it hovers around “only” 5%.

However, many argue that this calculation is inaccurate and unrepresentative, as it conflates all work fields without considering education levels, job positions, or industries. This is why we differentiate between the mentioned uncontrolled gender pay gap and the controlled gender pay gap. The controlled gender pay gap takes all the listed factors into account. It compares only the wage gap between men and women in the same position in the same job with equal qualifications. The controlled gender pay gap is at 2% in the United States as of this year.

Both of these numbers can be viewed as problematic. The controlled gender pay gap, though much lower, reveals that there are still intrinsic biases and direct inequality when it comes to female earnings. In some fields, these numbers are particularly extreme, such as female anesthesiologists earning 83 cents for every dollar their male counterparts do. 

The controlled gender pay gap is more complicated to dissect and comes in many layers.

A large element at play here is that women tend to be concentrated in lower-paying positions, such as teaching, nursing, or other forms of care. Men, even with similar levels of education, on the other hand, go for jobs higher-paying jobs, like mechanics or construction. This is referred to as ‘occupational segregation.’ Occupational segregation means that jobs that are of equal value to society but more closely associated with traditionally feminine traits are paid lower than those associated with traditionally masculine traits. Men benefit from this beyond their typical career choice, because, while they are preferred in male-dominated workspaces, female-dominated job areas have no gender preferences when hiring.

Gender roles outside of the workplace are another defining factor. Women with children have a wage gap that is twice as large as that of women without kids. This is because women in heterosexual partnerships bear a disproportionate share of childcare responsibilities. Some studies have found that women spend nine hours more a week doing unpaid housework than men do, which significantly impacts the time and energy they can invest in their professional life.

This explains the fact that the wage gap is most significant with women in their mid-30s to mid-40s. A 2009 study found that the annual gender pay gap was at only $15,000 one year after students graduated from business school, but ten times that nine years later.

The women most affected by having children are the ones that have the strictest business hours. The more flexible their shifts, the more the wage gap shrinks, as shown in chemistry, where women earn an average of $5,000 more than men a year. This is because they are free to go to the lab when it fits in their schedule, and they are not tied to specific opening hours that may overlap with caring for their children.

Having familial responsibilities and needing to take time off or only being able to work part-time affects a woman’s career progression. Men are much more likely to be promoted to high paying jobs because they can invest more of their time into their work and are therefore considered more professionally serious. Besides this, women are socialized differently from men and are more likely to volunteer or work for free, which employers naturally exploit.

Men are called back almost twice as often as equally high-achieving women. Employers are inherently biased against women, considering them to lack courage, leadership skills, and drive compared to their male counterparts, although women achieve equal results in equal settings.

A study of Uber earnings revealed that even there, where the algorithm that matches passengers to drivers has no gendered preference, there was a wage gap of 7%. This is because men have more flexibility in choosing when and where to work, and because they accept and cancel trips in a more lucrative manner.

The demographic that suffers most under the wage gap is women of color, specifically Black and Indigenous women. It also widens exponentially in higher positions. In 2016, only seven of the UK’s FTSE 100 companies had a female CEO. All these women were white.

The pay gap directly impacts a woman’s life. Throughout an average woman’s career in the US, she will earn $80,000 or $900,000 less than a man, depending on which calculation is used. This means that women are more likely to be dependent on welfare payments. 6% more women over the age of 65 are at risk of poverty than men. During the COVID19 enforced lockdowns, women were at higher risk of being laid off or having their work reduced. They were more likely to quit their job to take care of their children if these no longer went to school.

42% of women claim to have experienced gendered discrimination at their workplace. However, they are almost powerless against it, as filing discrimination charges is difficult, costly and time-consuming. Asking for more money often means risking their job or being subject to other forms of punishment for it.

The wage gap is slowly closing, with the uncontrolled gender pay gap decreasing by six cents in the past five years and the controlled one lowering by one cent. But studies show that at this tempo, female executives won’t be paid equally until 2109. One of the most effective counter methods to the gender wage gap is pay transparency, which virtually forces companies to ensure equal pay.

The gender pay gap is real but difficult to pinpoint because of the multitude of factors that influence it. Insisting that corporations are open about wages they are paying and encouraging men to take equal part in family life. These are two necessary steps towards a more just future. Still, the work can be done on almost every level. Uplift the women in your life and ensure that they receive professional space and recognition. Do not let us wait another century for equal pay.

Read also:
Men Need To Be Better Feminist Allies
In Female Dominated Ballet, The Men Hold The Power
Equal Pay For Fair Play