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The roots of the gender pay gap are deeper than discrimination

Michael J. Coren


For decades, women have been discriminated against in the modern workplace. Harassed and underpaid, working women have often been forced to accept lower wages,  and lower odds of being hired (paywall)or promoted (pdf). And in spite of progress, this disparity persists today. In January, the US Department of Labor sued enterprise software company Oracle for discriminating against women and people of color, allegedly costing such workers $400 million in unpaid wages. (Oracle denied the allegations.) 

But when economists look at the source of the pay gap across the US economy as a whole, discrimination is not the culprit. “This doesn’t mean that gender discrimination doesn’t exist,” says economist Federico Anzil, who recently conducted a study on the wage gap using US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. “[It] just shows that, at the aggregate level, most of the gap is not explained by gender discrimination.”

So what does explain the pay disparity? Anzil is one of a number of researchers searching for an answer. It’s not simple, but much of it comes down to inflexibility at work (which hurts women most), cultural norms about who takes time off when children arrive, and personal preference. 

There has been progress. As recently as 1960, the average woman in the US earned less than 60 cents for every $1 earned by men (and minority women earned even less). Today, they earn about 82 cents(pdf) for every man’s dollar. The average woman earns an annual median of $40,000, compared to $48,900 for men.

OECD countries have seen a similar narrowing of the gender pay gap. Yet progress has recently stalled out. In Scandinavia, which saw most of the gap narrow by the end of the 20th century, the pay gap remains stuck at about 15% (pdf), just less than the US.


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