Over the course of a full year, women earn $10,000 less, on average, than men.
The gender wage gap — the gap in earnings between men and women, which is currently 18 cents on every dollar as of 2018 — means that women earn significantly less over the course of their careers. According to one calculation, over the course of four decades, the average woman brings home $407,000 less than the average man. Even controlling for job title, education, industry, experience, and location, women earn less than men.
For women of color, the wage gap costs even more. Black women make $23,500 less than white men every year, while Latinas earn $28,000 less — which translates into a career-long wage gap of nearly $950,000 for Black women and over $1.1 million for Latinas.
And the wage gap isn't only a problem for women. In 2015, Black men earned 73% of white men's wages. Full-time workers with a disability make 87 cents for every dollar earned by workers without a disability, and LGBTQ+ workers faced a similar wage gap in a 2015 survey.
What's more, earning a higher education doesn't eliminate the wage gap. For women earning higher degrees, the wage gap actually widens: Women with a bachelor's degree earn 75 cents on the dollar compared with men with a bachelor's degree, and women with an advanced degree make only 73 cents on the dollar compared to men with an advanced degree.
So what can you do to avoid the wage gap? Is it even possible to address such a massive problem as an individual? While many factors that contribute to the wage gap are outside of individual control, women can take some steps to limit the impact of the pay gap on their careers.
Strategies to Avoid the Wage Gap
The wage gap affects women, people of color, LGBTQ+ workers, and workers with disabilities. While structural changes are outside of any one person's control, planning and advocating for yourself can make a big difference on an individual level. Here are a few key strategies to help you avoid making less money for the same work.
Know Your Rights
Everyone should earn what their work is worth, and equal pay laws protect employees from compensation discrimination. That means that understanding your legal protections can help you avoid the pay gap.
For example, the federal government enforces equal pay and compensation discrimination laws. The Equal Pay Act mandates equal pay for equal work, and the law covers more than salary. It also includes bonuses, overtime, and benefits.
The 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act increased the amount of time during which women can file a complaint about unfair pay. If you're making less than a male employee for the same work, you can file an EEOC complaint.
Several other laws also prevent wage gaps. For example, salary history bans prevent employers from asking about a job candidate's previous salary. These bans, currently enacted in 19 states and 21 local areas, end a form of pay discrimination that hits women and people of color the hardest.
Research Salaries and Know Your Worth
Before applying for jobs, candidates should research salaries in their field and at particular employers.
Sites like Glassdoor offer salary data and information on company culture that can help weed out pay discrimination problems. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides median salary data for different job titles, including data broken down by location. Your local network can also offer advice about salary rates in your field.
When in the job market, aim high when discussing potential salaries. If possible, ask the hiring manager to disclose the position's salary range before throwing out any numbers yourself. You don't want to miss out on earnings by undervaluing your worth.
Be willing to negotiate a salary offer. In a 2020 study, 60% of women said they'd never negotiated over salary, and not negotiating comes with a huge price tag. Carnegie Mellon economics professor Linda Babcock says passing up on negotiations early in your career can cost over a million dollars in lost earnings.
While negotiating a starting salary can be intimidating, keep in mind that a 2013 survey found that 89% of new hires successfully received higher salaries when they negotiated.
Ask for Raises Regularly
According to one survey, more than half of women have never asked for a raise. However, raises can help women keep up with men's earnings over the course of their career. The majority of men ask for raises, so it's time to learn how to ask for a raise.
In most industries, the standard advice recommends asking for a raise at least once per year. You should also ask for a raise whenever you take on additional responsibilities or add to your skill set through a professional certification.
Keep in mind that some jobs come with a fixed pay scale, which can limit opportunities for raises. For example, many government and civil service jobs use a salary schedule, as do many positions in education, union jobs, and certain hourly positions. In these fields, you might not be able to negotiate on salary or request a higher wage. Fortunately, set pay rates often mean greater salary equity.
On top of raises, you should also ask for promotions to avoid the pay gap. While the average annual raise sits around 3%, promotions often come with a higher pay increase of 10-20%.
Consider Walking Away
If you're underpaid at your current job and have not been successful in increasing your salary, consider looking for a new job. Walking away can actually be a smart financial move.
Employees see the largest increase in their wages when they jump jobs. A 2019 study by ADP found that employees who change companies earn more than their former coworkers who do not change jobs. In some industries, job hoppers increase their wages by 10% each time they change jobs, while those who stay typically receive a 3-4% annual raise.
Understanding the Pay Gap
The gender pay gap comes from deep-rooted, systemic issues — as do the race wage gap, the LGBTQ+ wage gap, and the disability pay gap. Occupations dominated by women pay less than those dominated by men, and social and cultural forces discourage women from pursuing certain careers. Women also pay a penalty for having kids, while fathers see their pay increase.
Yet individuals can still advocate for themselves against systemic problems like the pay gap. For example, men and women both can advocate for pay transparency and pay equity. Mentors can help early career professionals negotiate their salaries and think strategically about their worth.
Federal laws also protect employees from retaliation when they talk to managers or coworkers about pay discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers conversations about potentially discriminatory wages a protected activity. That means your employer cannot fire you, cut your pay, or discipline you for discussing pay.
Knowing your rights and thinking strategically about compensation puts more power in your hands. By understanding the pay gap, we can slowly chip away at it, penny by penny.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
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