When I started working at InHerSight, our editorial team spent an entire month (my first full month on the job) covering the gender pay gap because the topic itself warrants depth and rich understanding. That women make, on average, 82 cents to the white man’s dollar is relatively well-known. The why is what’s complicated. Factors that affect women’s pay are systemic, intersectional, and individual, and I’ll explain all of that in here.
But before we begin, the first rule of the Equality Fight Club is this: Don’t assume every woman has the same experience in the workplace.
Carry that understanding with you throughout this resource guide to understanding the intersectional gender pay gap.
I’m new to the gender pay gap. Where do I begin?
Hello and welcome to the inequality. We’re so sad to have you here.
Just kidding, you should learn about this! The gender pay gap refers to the gap between women’s and men’s pay, but the best way to think of it is like this:
For every dollar a white man earns, the average woman makes 82 cents.
Read that sentence again. You’ll notice I included “white” in front of “man” because race, like gender, impacts how much money people make. It’s also for brevity’s sake. When referring to this widely used gender pay gap statistic, we’re comparing all of women’s pay to that of the most privileged members of our society—cisgender straight white men—because that demographic has the most opportunities to succeed as well as the fewest hurdles to jump through in doing so. Add or remove layers of identity to either side of that data point, and the number changes.
Speaking of identity, you should also hesitate on the word “average,” because that’s the reason Equal Pay Day (which usually falls in March or April every year) is unrepresentative of women of color, women with disabilities, women who are overweight, mothers, etc. Equal Pay Day exists because of the gender pay gap; it marks the point in the year when women’s earnings finally align with white men’s pay from the previous year. On March 24, 2021, for instance, women finally earn what men did in 2020.
Equal Pay Day is calculated every year based on the average of all women’s pay gaps, which is the ever-popular 82 cents and most closely reflects the pay of white women. However, if you were to break down that statistic by demographic, you’d see gender pay gaps vary widely depending on who the woman is.
Wait, some women earn less than others?
Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Here we get to the concept of intersectionality.
The Oxford Languages Dictionary defines intersectionality as the “interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” This is a stiff way of saying that you can be discriminated against in different ways at the same time, and that you can’t unlink sexism from other types of prejudice like racism, ableism, and ageism.
Take these examples: A Black woman falls into two marginalized groups, gender and race, and a Black woman who is disabled falls into three. Both of these women will have different access to opportunities throughout their lives and experience different types of harassment, discrimination, and prejudice in the workforce than a white woman would.
They’ll also both earn less. Gender pay gaps intersect with pay gaps for race, age, ability, sexuality, immigration status, socioeconomic status, and parental and marital status. The National Women’s Law Center releases updated stats on each of these gaps every year.
Here’s how women of different races were paid as compared to white, non-Hispanic men in 2020:
White women: 79 cents
Black women: 63 cents
Latinas: 55 cents
Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women: 63 cents
Native American women: 60 cents
Asian American women: 87 cents
It’s possible to drill down on this data even further, and sometimes it’s necessary. You’ll notice that it appears Asian American women have the smallest pay gap—or are, alternatively, paid the most. However, subgroups in the Asian American demographic reflect different numbers, which is why it’s important not to lean too hard on even these data points. Indian American women make about $1.21 while Burmese American women make about 50 cents. Given that data, does looking at the Asian American stat alone feel representative? Our team elaborates on that further here: What the Gender Pay Gap Means for Asian American Women
The National Women’s Law Center also provides information about demographics beyond race:
Mothers are typically paid 70 cents compared to every dollar fathers earn.
Women ages 45–64 earn 76 cents compared to men of the same age.
Women with disabilities earn 80 cents compared to men with disabilities (the disability age gap for all genders is 63 cents to a dollar, so women’s pay is further depressed)
Lesbians make less than gay or straight men, and gay men make less than straight men.
Average earnings of transgender women fall by nearly one-third after transition.
Hopefully it’s clear from numbers like these why intersectionality is so important. In order to advance all women, we have to understand and account for all women’s realities. There is no “off switch” for identity.
Okay, intersectionality is important. But why is unfair pay happening at all?
Good question. On a philosophical level, I have no idea. All people of all genders are equally valuable and deserving. And if I were a few glasses of wine in while writing this, I would expand more on that topic. However, there are major systemic contributors to the gender pay gap, and I can soberly walk you through those—because even if discrimination doesn’t make logical sense, I can still, technically, answer, Why is there a gender pay gap?
It’s because of a crazy little thing called sexism (and other isms, as I’ve stated before), and it’s been around for a mere 12,000 years. Using a few key gender pay gap terms, I’m going to explain how it affects women’s pay.
You likely know that industries like tech and engineering are male-dominated, but the reason this remains true is that for years girls and women have been discouraged or even barred from entering such fields. Instead, they’ve most often been encouraged to pursue “care-oriented” careers such as education, nursing, child care, and administrative work. This is called occupational sorting. It’s the phenomenon where people of different genders “sort” themselves into stereotypically gendered careers.
The reason it affects the gender pay gap? Most care-oriented roles pay much less than jobs in male-dominated fields. For instance, although Black women experience pay gaps across occupations, the majority of Black women are concentrated in low-wage occupations like domestic work, retail, and service work, where structural issues are the most prevalent—hence why this demographic has such a huge pay gap.
Getting women into male-dominated industries isn’t just about representation (although that’s important), it’s also about ensuring wealth is distributed more equitably among all people.
Unequal distribution of household labor
We call “life” tasks such as caring for children, household chores, and emotional labor unpaid work or unpaid labor. It’s the work you do outside your workplace—the dishes watching me from the sink as I type this.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women in the U.S. spend about four hours doing unpaid work every day, compared to men’s average of about two and a half hours.
Although taking on a second shift, another must-know term, of unpaid work doesn’t directly impact wages at first, it does affect bandwidth. Women are more likely to switch to part-time or less stressful, low-paying jobs because they simply have a lot to do.
It also means that less affluent women without access to affordable child care and in industries without benefits are constantly at risk of dropping out of the labor force. “It means that if your child care breaks down, you’re absent from your job, you get fired, then you find a new job, but you start a lower level,” said Ariane Hegewisch, the program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, to MarketWatch. “You’re basically trapped in a cycle of bad jobs because of the lack of reliability.” This cycle most acutely affects women of color.
The motherhood penalty
Did you know moms experience a 4 percent wage loss every time they have a child? This is called the motherhood penalty, and it occurs because parental leave policies are lacking, pregnancy discrimination runs rampant, and women continue to do the majority of the child-rearing in heterosexual relationships. (Looks pointedly at Hegewish’s statement above.)
The truth is, people who give birth need to take time off to recover and be with their child in the first few weeks. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17 percent of companies offer paid parental leave, and 89 percent offer unpaid, meaning when most women in the U.S. have a child, they end up having to take unpaid time away from their jobs. This causes the gap between women’s and men’s wages to grow.
That trend continues throughout a child’s life. You might already know the term mommy tracking, which refers to the steps a woman takes to alter her career in order to take care of her kids. This could mean changing careers, limiting hours, etc, but it all comes at the cost of advancement and closing the gender pay gap. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a mom, but because few men choose to be primary caregivers, women as a group lag behind.
Mommy tracking can also be used in reference to women being given less work, receiving fewer promotions, being excluded from meetings, etc. after becoming mothers. It’s the discriminatory assumption that because a woman has a child, she is no longer engaged or interested in her career, which is simply untrue.
Lack of self-advocacy
Negotiating a good salary, asking for a raise, and applying to jobs that are a step up in your career are all givens in the workplace, right? Nope. I’m not one to drag women for continuing to breathe the atmosphere we didn’t create, but one way women fail to close the gender pay gap is by not advocating for more money or higher-ranking positions. Women are 16 percent less likely than men to negotiate their salaries, and unlike men, who apply to jobs when they’re 60 percent qualified, women tend to only shoot for positions where they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. These tendencies literally cost women thousands.
Outright gender discrimination
I originally labeled this section “being a sexist jerk,” but then I thought, Perhaps don’t make light of such a serious topic. Although? It’s not wrong.
That said, gender discrimination still factors heavily into how women are treated at work. Yes, there are absolutely employers who pay women less than they do men for doing the same job, despite it being illegal. Women are also promoted less often because they’re women, because they’re pregnant, or because they’re moms. These are sad truths linked into boys’ club cultures and lack of pay transparency (aka the practice of sharing how much money you make, whether through word of mouth or public-facing company data).
At the same time, company culture factors like sexual harassment and microaggressions push women out of their jobs. Would you leave a toxic workplace if it meant having to take a pay cut? If it were affecting my safety and my mental health, I would. You can read more about the devastating and intersectional effects of microaggressions on women’s careers in our six-part series.
Those sound bad. How do we close the gender pay gap then?
Eee. Regardless of what you or I do, the gender pay gap is not going to close for another century or so. Systemic sexism roots run deep. I suggest finding a good meditation app, acknowledging that thought, and letting it float away.
InHerSight does have resources to help women earn more and support fair pay legislation, and to help companies begin to address practices that limit the advancement of women. These are my recommendations:
For women: 7 Indirect Ways to Close the Gender Pay Gap
For women: How to Ask Someone How Much Money They Make
For companies: What 6 Companies Are Doing to Bridge the Gender Pay Gap
For companies and women: Salary History: Where Asking Is Illegal, Why & How to Redirect the Conversation
I also suggest educating yourself further on the gender pay gap so you can pass that knowledge on and admonish the naysayers (yep, some people say the gender pay gap is a myth). Here are a few resources to guide you through that process: