To solve the gender pay gap, look beyond gender

Today marks a symbolic point in the conversation around the pay gap between women and men; Equal Pay Day represents the point in the year when women’s earnings finally catch up with what men earned the year before. Currently, women earn on average a fraction of what men make annually. The fact that women make on average 79 cents on the dollar paid to men has become widely quoted and critiqued, but that number only tells part of the story. Equal Pay Day is only the first chapter.

What is lost in the narrative is that women experience this pay gap in different ways. While white, non-Hispanic women are paid 75 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, Black women make only 60 cents (down from last year’s average of 64 cents), Native American women 59 cents, and Latina women 55 cents. While Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women appear to experience the smallest pay gap, at 86 cents, that data is misleading too. Lumping all AAPI women together obscures the diversity within the AAPI community. Thanks to the advocacy of Ms. Foundation for Women grantee, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, we know that Bhutanese and Marshallese women are among the lowest paid women, making only 38 and 44 cents, respectively, compared to white, non-Hispanic men.

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To see the full picture, the discussion must go further than the average pay gap to the real-life effects of pay disparities. The detrimental impact of the pay gap is cumulative, contributing to lifelong economic hardships and increasing women’s risk of poverty as they age. A new report from the National Women’s Law Center estimates that women in the United States lose on average$430,480, almost half a million dollars, over the course of their careers due to pay inequity. For women of color, the losses can exceed one million dollars. When you factor in the differences in contributions to Social Security, the pay gap results in women having less of a safety net than men for retirement. As a result, women experience poverty at twice the rate of men over the age of 65.

But, again, this is only part of the narrative. The conversation on pay inequity typically centers around women who are already making a living wage, ignoring the low-income women, women of color, and immigrant women who comprise the majority of low-wage “pink-collar workers” in the service industry. Ms. Foundation for Women grantees, including the Garment Worker Center and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, have long advocated for fair pay and work conditions for these women, linking low wages to the inaccessibility of child care and other essential family needs. In addition, the pay gap has a disparate impact on the economic security of mothers, who are the primary breadwinners in nearly 40 percent of low-income families.

Now, some argue that women’s career choices are the root of pay inequity; but you cannot dispute the numbers. When men who work in professions where women have traditionally been overrepresented, like teaching and nursing,earn more on average than women in those fields, there is clear evidence of discrimination. In addition, new research has shown that as large numbers of women enter fields in which they have historically been underrepresented, such as STEM-related fields, the average pay within that sector declines.

The problem is more than a career choice, which is why we must confront the systemic sexism and racism that views women, particularly women of color, as less than. This system keeps them segregated into low-paid, undervalued, and poorly regulated jobs and continues to penalize women when they enter higher-paying fields. The wage gap cannot be resolved overnight. To combat the unfounded belief that a woman’s work is substantively different — and less valuable — than a man’s, the solution must involve everyone.

That is why the gender pay gap must be tackled on multiple fronts. We must not only provide the tools and create the space for diverse women to enter fields in which they are underrepresented but also ensure that once they are there, they enjoy the pay, protections, and positions of leadership afforded to men. This requires holding both public and private employers accountable for their wage and hiring practices and amplifying the steps that companies, like Salesforce, have taken to eliminate the pay gap. It also requires ensuring that our elected officials and regulatory bodies are vigilant about uncovering discrimination, enforce existing laws, and set strong national standards that lift up the value of all women.

Creating a culture of equal pay will benefit all of us, but in order to achieve it, discrimination in any form cannot be tolerated. Until all marginalized communities, women and men, are valued, fairly compensated, and seen, the pay gap and the generational economic inequality it produces will continue. Contrary to what some may think, the gender pay gap is not a “women’s issue;” this is America’s issue.

Originally posted on Medium