Today, April 10, is Equal Pay Day, a date that symbolises how far into 2018 the average American woman has to work to earn what the average man did the year before. It’s a powerful reminder of how significant this gap still is—and how far we have to go to close it. On average, women make about 80 cents for every dollar a man does. For women of colour, the gap is even wider.
Some people assume this disparity is rooted in simple pay discrimination, the kind that led Lilly Ledbetter to sue her bosses at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company after learning that her male colleagues doing the exact same job were earning thousands of dollars more for it. However, when you look at the data, you see that “equal pay for equal work” is only part of a much broader, more complicated problem.
It’s not only that the average woman is sometimes paid less for doing the same work, it’s that she’s often doing a different kind of work all together — likely in a lower-paying industry or in a lower-paying position — and not necessarily by choice.
The data tells us that industries that are dominated by women — like healthcare and childcare — tend to be lower-paying than industries dominated by men. So even if she is working just as much and just as hard (or even more and even harder!), the ceiling over her earnings is often simply lower. That’s a problem that perpetuates itself, because if a woman knows she will earn less than her partner, it makes sense that they would decide together that her career will come second.
And no matter what industry you work in, it’s hard to put in extra hours to get ahead if you’re also the one who decides what’s for dinner and picks up groceries or who drives the carpool, checks homework, and puts kids to bed. These tasks usually still fall to women, who, everywhere in the world, spend more than twice as many hours each day doing household chores than men do.
If we want to see Equal Pay Day start falling earlier each year, we have to start by ensuring that women have equal opportunities to do better-paying work. Here are some changes that could help even the playing field.
"I’m hopeful I’ll live to see a day when the data tells us we no longer have to mark this day at all."
Melinda Gates, Co-Chair & Trustee, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
1. Make sure women can enter high-paying industries like tech
Science, technology, and engineering offer some of the world’s best salaries — and some of the worst gender gaps. There are lots of contributing factors to that imbalance, but research tells us one of the big ones is that women and girls get interested in tech at different points in their lives and for different reasons than men and boys. We need to ensure that there are pathways open to them, too, whether they’re in school or making a career transition.
The data also tells us that women leave the tech industry at rates twice as high as men—often because a culture of bias and discrimination pushes them out. My career, which started more than 30 years ago, has not been free from these issues. Companies have a tremendous opportunity to address both, particularly by connecting women with mentors and advocates.
2. Create policies to help families thrive
At some point during your working life, you’re almost certainly going to be a caregiver for someone, whether that’s your kids, your partner or spouse, your parents, or all of the above. But few workplaces are designed to accommodate that reality.
The result is that many Americans feel torn between their responsibilities at home and at work, and some eventually find it impossible to do both. When that happens, men tend to stay in the workforce, women tend to leave, and the pay gap between them gets wider.
Strong paid family and medical leave policies — ones that extend equal benefits to men and women — can help ensure that a new baby or a sick parent doesn’t mean you can’t also have a successful career. And flexible work policies that give people more control over how and when they work can ease the strain of day-to-day caregiving.
3. Share the work at home equally
One of the most overlooked causes of the gender pay gap is the fact that across the globe women spend more than twice as many hours cooking, cleaning, and caregiving than men do. And, for women who work, this is time they are spending in addition to pursuing their career ambitions.
We can start to address this in our daily lives by taking a hard look at who’s doing what around our households and making sure those chores are divided in a way that works for everyone. For example, it was Bill’s responsibility to drive our daughter Jenn to preschool school two days a week. (I hear that other moms told their husbands, “If Bill Gates can drive his daughter to school, you can too!”) And Bill loved doing it — after all, it gave him an extra hour a day with his daughter.
Equal Pay Day provides an opportunity for these conversations and, even better, to take action. There’s a lot we can do right now to break down the barriers women face, at home and at work — and I’m hopeful I’ll live to see a day when the data tells us we no longer have to mark this day at all.