What is the Pay Gap and How Can We End It?

Today is Equal Pay Day — the day that symbolizes how far women who work full-time year round jobs have to work into 2016 to catch up to the amount men made in 2015. Fun! To commemorate this day, MTV wanted to raise an important question: If women are paid 79% of what men make, shouldn’t they work 79% of the day? The 79% Work Clock helps us visualize the wage gap, with a handy alarm that you can set to ring at 79% of the way through your workday.

It’s a simple idea, but the pay gap is actually really complicated. What does that 79% number really mean? Let’s break it down.

Even in 2016, there’s a stubborn difference in median yearly earnings for American men and women. But that 79% statistic does NOT mean that men and women with the same jobs are getting different paychecks every week. Instead, the 79% number comes from analyzing the yearly salaries of all men and all women. When you do that, you find that the average American woman with a full-time job and a yearly salary makes 79% of what the average American man with a full-time job and a yearly salary makes. Here’s the breakdown in dollars from the National Partnership on Women & Families:

“Nationally, on average, a woman who holds a full-time, year-round job is paid $39,621 per year while a man who holds a full-time, year-round job is paid $50,383 per year. This means that, overall, women in the United States are paid 79 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to a yearly wage gap of $10,762 between full-time working men and women.”

That’s a lot of money — the National Partnership estimates that the wage gap costs those American women with full-time, year-round jobs almost $500 billion dollars a year. And the wage gap for women of color who work full-time, year-round is even worse. As the National Partnership points out, “African American women are paid, on average, 60 cents and Latinas are paid just 55 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.”

So what causes this wage gap? The short answer is that it’s incredibly complicated. Experts and lawmakers debate the causes of the pay gap, and the best ways to fix it. Skeptics often say the gender wage gap boils down to the fact that women simply choose jobs that pay less than the jobs that men choose. But it’s not that simple. Here are some major systemic causes behind the wage gap, and action steps you can take to change them.

  1. Gender biases keep women and girls out of STEM fields that make a lot of money. To begin with, women are totally underrepresented in college STEM degrees. And even when women enter STEM fields for work, over half of them leave those fields by the middle of their career. A lack of female role models in STEM fields makes the problem harder to fix, and often women who leave jobs in the STEM world say that a “macho culture” made it really hard to feel welcome. Check out this video to learn more about gender norms that exclude women from STEM.

What can I do? Volunteer or donate to organizations encouraging women to pursue STEM fields, like Girls Who Code. Or, learn to code yourself! There are plenty of sites available that you can use to teach yourself to code.

2. Jobs that are usually done by women are paid less than similar jobs that are usually done by men. Studies show that a gender wage gap exists for jobs that have similar educational and skills requirements and responsibilities. (Think janitors vs. maids) And if that’s not bad enough, wages for jobs that were historically done by women go way up when men take over, and vice versa. For example, computer science used to be thought of as an administrative job for women. But when men took over, pay skyrocketed.

What can I do? Sign a petition urging Congress to pass legislation that fights pay gap loopholes, learn more about the issue, and vote for politicians who support these legislative changes.

3. Women are conditioned not to negotiate for higher salaries. Studies have shown that women are far less likely than men to negotiate for higher salaries and raises. Often, women who negotiate or speak up with different ideas in work situations get labeled as “bossy” or other negative personality traits. This means that women often leave money on the table when they’re hired, or don’t negotiate for pay raises they deserve.

As Jennifer Lawrence wrote in a letter about finding out she got paid much less than her male co-stars, “But if I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem “difficult” or “spoiled.” At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being “difficult” or “spoiled.””

What can I do? Learn more, and support programs that train women to be effective advocates. Talk to your friends about pay inequality and encourage them to negotiate and stand up for themselves.

4. Paid family and medical leave in the United States is rare. In all but five states, women aren’t guaranteed paid maternity leave — and even more don’t guarantee men paid paternity leave or paid medical leave for serious family care giving needs. Without access to paid leave, some women leave the workforce for periods of time, making it more likely that women will be paid less than men who have not had interruptions in their work experience. Yet when women and men have access to paid leave, women’s workforce participation and wages increase.

What can I do? Sign a petition urging lawmakers to vote for paid family leave, learn more about the issues, and vote for politicians who support these laws.

The issue of the pay gap is complex, but actions in your own life and advocacy for better policy can change the reality for American women’s wallets.

To learn more about the wage gap, go to 79percentclock.com. And to share your personal stories about women in the workplace, check out this piece on Medium.

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