Gender-based wage discrimination remains a pernicious problem in the workplace despite enactment over 50 years ago of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), which made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to men and women in the same workplace who perform substantially equal work.
As the Supreme Court recognized in the 1973 case of Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, the Act was designed "to remedy what was perceived to be a serious and endemic problem of employment discrimination in private industry − the fact that the wage structure of many segments of American industry has been based on an ancient but outmoded belief that a man, because of his role in society, should be paid more than a woman even though his duties are the same." 417 U.S. 188, 195. Despite this country’s clear goal of eradicating wage discrimination, we have allowed the statute to become outdated, thereby limiting its effectiveness as a tool to remedy gender-based wage discrimination.
Unequal pay for substantially equal work exists across a wide spectrum of occupations, regardless of educational level or geographical location, and is a contributing factor to the persistent gender wage gap. According to the most recent available data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018, on average, women working full-time were paid 81.6 cents for every dollar earned by men, and in 2020, Payscale published data that shows the pay gap has not improved since then. The wage gap for African American women and Latinas is worse, and additional factors, like motherhood and single-parent status, compound the effect across-the-board.
This wage gap cannot be dismissed entirely as the inevitable by-product of "women’s choices" in education, career and family matters; recent authoritative studies show that even when all relevant career and family attributes are taken into account, there still is an unexplained gap between men’s and women’s earnings. Two examples are summarized below.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, an analysis of 2019 earnings data for 125 occupations with an estimated minimum of 50,000 workers published by the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, women earn less than men who perform substantially the same jobs in the 20 most common occupations for women and in all of the 20 most common occupations for men. Overall, the Institute found that “Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations, whether they work in occupations predominantly done by women, occupations predominantly done by men, or occupations with a more even mix of men and women. Data for both women’s and men’s median weekly earnings for full-time work are available for 125 occupations. The occupation with the largest gender wage gap is ‘financial managers’; women’s 2019 median weekly earnings for full-time work in this occupation were just 63.6 percent of those of men’s, a gender wage gap of 36.4 percent. The median weekly gender earnings ratio for all full-time weekly workers was 81.5 percent, a weekly gender wage gap of 18.5 percent.”
An analysis of the gender wage gap for college graduates one year out of college undertaken by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in 2012 came to similar conclusions. According to its analysis, the pay gap between female and male college graduates cannot fully be accounted for by factors known to affect wages, such as experience (including work hours), training, education, and personal characteristics. The report concluded that “Among recent graduates who made the same education and career choices, women still earned just 93 percent of what men earned, leaving a 7 percent unexplained pay gap. We know from previous research (AAUW Educational Foundation, 2007) that the pay gap only grows larger as women spend more years in the workforce.”