We’re just a few weeks into the new year, but there’s a good chance you’re already feeling the fatigue.
For many women, the year begins on a weary note that stems from a relentless pursuit of parity in the workplace.
In the last 12 months, tens of thousands of women have only earned three-fourths of the pay their male counterparts have made. A disparity rooted in flawed societal belief that women have to consistently over and outperform to attain similar levels of recognition and respect.
Despite years of advocating for equal pay, Equal Pay Day represents a persistent, and uncomfortable, truth in our workforce today: the journey toward genuine equality remains a challenge. But the question is, is this day more than just symbolic recognition—and is tangible progress being made?
We asked five diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and pay equity advocates to weigh in on the purpose of marking Equal Pay Day annually, the strides being made, how leaders can take action, and the significant journey ahead before the day can be relegated to history. Here’s what they had to say about the complicated milestone.
What is Equal Pay Day? How it started and what it really represents
Equal Pay Day is far from a cause for celebration. It’s not meant to be an acknowledgement of how far we’ve come, but an accountability check of how much farther we have yet to go before achieving pay equity in the United States.
“It’s the annual nudge to face the facts and track society’s progress in shortening the gap,” says Debbie Duarte, community manager at the compensation and data management software company, Kamsa.
Initiated by the National Committee on Pay Equity in 1996, Equal Pay Day (originally known as National Pay Inequity Awareness Day) was established to highlight the infuriating reality that women had to work until March or April of the new year to earn what their white male counterparts made in the previous year. The day serves as a continual measure of the time and effort women expend to “catch up” with male colleagues.
When Equal Pay Day was first recognized, women were earning just 75 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. Fast forward over 27 years, from 1996 to 2023, this gap has only marginally improved by a mere 8 percentage points. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that on average, women today only earn about 83 percent of what men earn, translating to a yearly income difference of at least $10,000.
Founder of the financial education platform, Fem Equity, Adeola Ajani’s experience in the workforce is an eye-opening example of this issue, having accepted a role at one of the most prestigious Fortune 500s in the world in 2020, only to find herself earning 40 percent less than male counterparts and the market rate. Now, even as she actively works to arm underrepresented individuals with the information they need to command pay equity, she points to a haunting statistic shared by the American Association of University Women: At the current pace, it may not be until 2088 or later that women achieve a standard of pay equity.
Her response is both succinct and powerful, “It’s unacceptable.” And it’s a sobering reminder that while progress has been made, the road ahead remains long and demanding.
What is not represented on Equal Pay Day
While the inception of Equal Pay Day in the United States marks a critical step in addressing wage disparities, it’s important to recognize that this observance doesn’t fully capture the extensive range of pay inequalities affected by race, age, disability, gender identity, parenthood, and more.
Ajani points out that Equal Pay Day is limited in scope, failing to capture the full extent of pay inequality. “This day does not encompass marginalized races such as Black and Latina women—groups that are paid the least. And, it doesn’t encompass other groups like working moms,” she explains.
Black and Native American women earn just 60 cents, and Latinas earn only 55 cents, for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts. To call these inequities to attention, additional Equal Pay Days throughout the year have been established to remind us that this issue is multifaceted.
In recognition of the diverse impacts of pay inequity, the calendar now includes days like Black Women’s Equal Pay Day in July, Moms’ Equal Pay Day in August, and Latina Equal Pay Day in October.
Building on this, Hannah Williams, CEO and founder of Salary Transparent Street™️, highlights an important nuance often missed in these discussions, “We can't forget that this is still an issue affecting millions of workers year after year, and it's more than just women.” This insight recognizes the complexity of the wage disparity, which transcends gender and extends in race, job roles, sexual orientation, disability, and more.
Echoing the need for a more inclusive approach, Duarte stresses the importance of not only paying attention to specific observations but also challenging ourselves to a deeper understanding about ingrained biases that perpetuate pay inequity across various demographics.
“[Equal Pay Day] shouldn’t just bring awareness to the fact that people are paid unfairly, it should carry an indignation that unconscious bias exists so prevalently,” she says.
Going beyond a day on the calendar: how to make Equal Pay Day meaningful
In a calendar filled with arbitrary observances, it could be easy to overlook Equal Pay Day as just another annual marker without substance. However, its significance—and its variations throughout the year—lies in its ability to keep the conversation about wage disparities alive in workplaces, legislative arenas, and even on social media. These days provide pivotal touchpoints for ongoing dialogue and reflection.
Yet, there’s still a pressing need to avoid falling into the awareness trap of using this day for temporary urgency without taking action toward meaningful and lasting change.
Deborah Avens, chief empowerment officer for the SOFEI group, an organization committed to providing services to empower women to obtain self-sustaining wages and create pathways to economic stability cautions that, “Acknowledging and honoring Equal Pay Day will continue to raise awareness about this disparity, but won’t provide solutions.”
Pamela Pujo, diversity, equity, and inclusion manager at CBRE, underscores the importance of these observances as a reminder of the extensive work that remains, warning that without sustained attention and action, we risk regressing to even greater levels of inequality.
Looking to the future, Duarte sees Equal Pay Day evolving from acknowledgement to a force driving accountability and aspires for a time when businesses are held responsible for actively bridging the wage gap. She notes that the goal should be working toward a day where we no longer have to benchmark wage gaps, instead becoming “a historical footnote in the workforce.”
Reinforcing this perspective, Ajani emphasizes the need for sustaining the momentum throughout the year. “Equal pay is a value pillar that should be embedded in every company’s culture. This is a huge discussion that leaders should have daily on how to make sure their workplace is equitable. This is a 365 [day] conversation, not limited to just one day.”
As part of a more proactive approach, Williams suggests that affected groups consider enforcing strikes, shifting from dialogue to direct action.
“We’ve highlighted the issue for too many years, it’s now time to show what the impact really looks like,” she adds.
Equal Pay Day in action: ways companies and business leaders can connect with employees
So how can leaders utilize Equal Pay Day as a catalyst for genuine change rather than a symbolic observance? Pujo suggests companies should use the various Equal Pay Days throughout the year as benchmarks for conducting pay equity audits.
“Pay equity audits are a necessary tool to help enforce transparency and accountability,” she explains. The results gained from these audits can form the backbone of business strategies aimed at narrowing internal pay gaps.
Duarte notes the need for businesses to commit to comprehensive compensation strategies including job leveling, accessing reliable compensation data, publicly declaring compensation philosophies, and incorporating regular salary market adjustments in compensation reviews.
“I know these all seem like buzzwords,” she says, “But there are resources, like Kamsa, whose sole purpose is to equip companies with the tools they need to accomplish pay equity for all their employees.”
Expanding on these ideas, Williams advises leaders to shift beyond using Equal Pay Day as a day for reflection to taking action in implementing equal pay policies, fixing pay discrepancies, and providing transparency in all aspects of employment, from job listings to promotions and transfers. “When pay is transparent, companies can foster a culture of fairness, and it enables employees to negotiate for equitable compensation based on merit and not arbitrary factors.”
Avens suggests using Equal Pay Day as an opportunity to offer equal training and development to all staff members, which is critical for the growth and sustainability of businesses.
By adopting these proactive measures, businesses have the power to bridge the pay gap effectively—all that’s needed is the willingness to start the conversation and lead the charge.
One day, hopefully much sooner than what’s projected, Equal Pay Day will symbolize a milestone of triumph in achieving fair and equal compensation for all.