The gender pay gap might seem like an individual problem — of a man simply earning more than a woman because of merit, experience, or some other legitimate factor — until you look at the data.
The gender pay gap occurs worldwide and in nearly all industries and professions, regardless of objective factors that should influence income, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Globally, women earn on average just 68% of what men are paid for the same work, and just 40% on average in countries with the least gender parity, the WEF notes.
At the current rate of progress, it’ll take an estimated 257 years to close the gap and achieve pay equity worldwide, the WEF found. And the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse by disproportionately impacting women in the economic sphere. In fact, research suggests that the gender pay gap will widen by 5% because of the pandemic.
“Achieving real gender equality — in law, in practice, in the home, and in the economy — is a challenge that this generation must rise to,” says Aaron Holtz, director for gender equality and inclusion at Global CItizen. “To achieve the UN's Global Goals and to reap the benefits of a more equitable and fair world, society needs to put more value behind the talents and contributions of women and girls.”
The majority of countries worldwide do have laws in place to ensure equal pay for equal work — but these laws are not always implemented appropriately. Meanwhile, the legal requirement for equality is only part of the issue.
The gender pay gap is systemic: it reflects the widespread misogyny that occurs in patriarchal societies where men’s contributions are valued more than women’s — even when fulfilling the same role — coupled with a cultural norm that directs women and girls towards lower paying and lower valued occupations .
This misogyny negatively affects individuals and their communities and can have a direct impact on many important areas of life, including educational outcomes, access to health and social services, and political inclusion and representation.
The gender pay gap is a manifestation of gender injustice, and it plays a role in undermining wider efforts at achieving gender equality. It often prevents women from achieving economic security and independence, for example, and can limit their ability and that of their families to lift themselves out of poverty, as well as hampering the ability of women and girls to participate fully and equally in the economy and the wider society.
And on the face of it, it doesn’t make any sense. Why, after all, would men be paid more than women for equal work?
What causes the gender pay gap?
The gender pay gap happens for a variety of reasons.
At its most basic, it involves direct pay discrimination: men being paid more than than their female colleagues for equal work, for no reason beyond their gender.
The female stars in the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, for example, reportedly earned a fifth of what their male colleagues earned before finding out and demanding equal wages.
But it's not just a problem in entertainment. In the US, as in many other countries too, women in nearly every profession, ranging from nursing to teaching to software engineering, earn less than men.
In the absence of strong worker protections, including parental and family leave, working women also often face what’s known as a “pregnancy penalty.”
This can range from being fired or passed up for a promotion because of a pregnancy; experiencing discrimination or lack of opportunities while pregnant; or facing difficulties in reentering the workforce after giving birth.
Furthermore, women around the world are still faced with a disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic labor, such as child-rearing and household responsibilities — systemic problems that lead to lower earning potential for women because it prevents them from focusing on their careers with the same attention as men.
But it’s not just inequality of pay, it’s inequality of opportunity too. In many countries, women are discouraged from entering the workforce and are barred from working in certain professions.
Who's fighting the gender pay gap?
In recent years, the gender pay gap has aroused heated public debate and champions from a range of professions have emerged.
The US women’s soccer team has demanded pay comparable to their male colleagues; Hollywood actresses have called for an end to massive pay discrepancies; and journalists at institutions like the BBC have uncovered glaring differences in pay.
At a more grassroots level, women-led organizations are pushing for pay equity that takes into account intersectional matters.
In the UK, the #MeTooPay campaign emerged in October 2019 to demand pay equity after a story of a female banker who was paid significantly less than her male colleagues hit the news.
While the gender pay gap impacts all women, women from historically marginalized groups are particularly impacted.
In the US, Black and Latina women are generally paid less than white and Asian women. Trans women face widespread pay discrimination and other employment barriers; and women with disabilities are often paid a fraction of what their peers earn and have limited employment opportunities.
Efforts to address these pay disparities focus on a few key areas.
How can we end the gender pay gap?
First, laws that enforce pay equity can effectively root out wage discrepancies, and ensure better frameworks are in place to achieve greater equality in the workplace. As countries emerge from the pandemic, economic recovery plans can be crafted in ways that support women.
Complementing legal reform, activists globally are trying to get companies to voluntarily commit to pay equity — a pledge dozens of companies in the US have made so far.
Recruiting and promoting women to leadership roles within companies also helps to reduce the gender pay gap, because it allows women to influence corporate culture and decision-making, including directly influencing pay grades and wider equity.
At a more systemic level, initiatives that encourage women to pursue certain careers and provide mentorship and direction can bring greater representation to higher-paying fields.
Studies show that girls from an early age are directly or indirectly steered away from specific career paths, for example by being discouraged from pursuing science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) subjects from elementary school onwards.
Another way to promote pay equity is through income transparency measures within companies and across industries. If women have access to the pay range of their peers, they can better negotiate starting pay and raises. Income transparency also holds companies accountable by highlighting unjust and sexist practices.
Ending the gender pay gap is about making sure women and men are paid fairly and equitably for the work they do.
But as well as addressing the UN’s Global Goal for gender equality, improving the rights of women and girls also addresses numerous of the root causes of extreme poverty and inequality globally.
Improving gender equality would in turn help with things like improving women’s health, ending domestic violence, enabling female entrepreneurship, and much more.
When women achieve financial security, their lives, prospects, and opportunities improve — as do those of their families, their communities, and their societies.
It’s beyond time to end the gender pay gap and ensure that women and girls can finally achieve equality with their male peers. Join the movement to ensure gender equality by taking action here.