Equal Pay Day – 2017

By Bill Barclay

April 4, 2017, is the day when we’ll reach the point in 2017 at which time the typical woman (receiving median pay) in the United States will, when she adds the amount she was paid in 2016 to the amount she has been paid year-to-date, get the same amount of income that her male counterpart (receiving median pay) got in 2016. This is called “Equal Pay Day” and has been designated since 1996 by the National Committee on Pay Equity to call attention to the gender disparity in wages.

Of course, as the chart below illustrates, unequal pay by gender has been around for much longer than the past two decades. (Indeed, in the Old Testament, Leviticus 27, verses 2-5, mandates that a woman receive 60% of a man’s earnings.) While the long-term trend in the United States has been towards a narrowing of the gap, progress has not been linear. There are time periods during which there was almost no reduction in the female/male wage gap, and there have been short periods in which a significant reduction in the gender wage gap occurred.

* Female labor force participation rate

** Married women labor force participation rate


So, what can we say about these different periods? The first long period is the thirty years between 1950 and 1980: there was virtually no change in the gender wage gap. In 1950 the median woman made 59.4% of her male counterpart’s wages, and in 1980 she made 60.9%. This “Betty Friedan” generation of women who read her book The Feminine Mystique certainly went into the labor force, especially married women, whose labor force participation rate doubled between 1950 and 1980.* But when they got there, they found that gender discrimination was rampant, despite the 1960s legislation prohibiting gender wage discrimination.

So why the progress in the 1980s? There were probably three reasons. First, in the 1970s there were significant legal cases that prevented employers from circumventing the equal pay requirements simply by renaming jobs or paying women “the going market rate.”  But there are two other things also happening. Beginning in the 1980s, men’s wages stagnate or grow very slowly. So women entering the labor force are gaining on a slowly moving target – the median male wage. As a result of outsourcing and the onset of deindustrialization in parts of the United States, male wages, especially in manufacturing, lagged the growth of female wages. And, by the end of the 1970s, a much larger proportion of women entering the labor force had finished college and were going into higher paid jobs compared to the traditional female fields of nursing and public school teaching. This shift in female occupational distribution also reduced the gender wage gap.

The gap did not close in the following decade. But in the 2000-2010 period another significant narrowing occurred. And this time the median wages of both genders grew. However, almost all of the narrowing in the gender wage gap occurred prior to the 2008 financial crisis and the onset of the Great Recession. There has been virtually no progress in reducing the gender wage gap since then. It is unlikely that the Trump regime will make this issue a major concern.

There is one additional pattern that is important to highlight: the gender wage gap is much larger at top end of the wage distribution than at the low end. Women in the bottom 10th decile (10%) of income earners are paid over 90% of what men in that decile are paid. However, at the 95th decile, women are paid only 74% of what their male counterparts are paid. This disparity is probably the result of two forces. First, at the low end of the wage distribution, minimum wage laws make it difficult to pay women less. The Fight for $15 is not just a good way to attack class inequality, it is a good way to attack gender inequality. At the other end of the wage distribution, top income jobs in often demand long and inflexible working hours. There is, in effect, a motherhood penalty since U.S. women still do a disproportionate share of childcare.

Universal parental and childcare policies are a demand that socialists should support. Not, of course, just because we want high paid female lawyers and financial employees to be treated fairly (although we should), but because they are good for all of us in our fight to create policies that recognize the reality of intersectionality and our commitment to ending the many hierarchies of domination that are integral to neoliberal capitalism.

And here we could follow Iceland, where legislation has been introduced requiring employers to prove – not just claim, but actually document – that they are paying men and women equally.  This infringement on capital’s prerogative to discriminate was driven by Icelandic women who had a creative way to make their point: last October women in Reykjavik left their work at 2:38 PM, the point in the day that men were paid as much as women for the entire work day. They assembled in the main square, demanding action on pay equity.


* Single women’s labor force participation rate has been significant for a much longer period of time. In 1910 half of all single women worked outside the home while only 1 in 10 married women did. The 50% level for single women moved very little until the 1950s/1960s, however, but remained well above the rate for married women until the late 1970s.

Bill Barclay is on the Steering Committee of Chicago DSA, is a founding member of the Chicago Political Economy Group and serves as DSA National Member Organizer.

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