After a century of legislation and activism addressing the issue, why does this workplace inequality persist? The pay gap is more than a numerical average of 77 cents to the white-male dollar. It has functioned across the decades as a mechanism to devalue women’s contributions in public and maintain gendered divisions of labor in the home. Legal prescriptions haven’t resolved the issue because it isn’t simply the imbalance of unequal pay for the same jobs. Underlying the shorted pay slips is a culture of gendered stereotypes that pushes women toward lower-paying, care-focused work — and then pays less because those jobs are identified as women’s work.
In the mid-19th century, as the workforce grew more female, a pernicious cycle emerged. Women flocked to professions that demanded traditionally domestic or feminized skills. When they did, pay for these jobs dropped. More than a century later, such jobs remain perennially underpaid.
Take nursing, a field that is 90 percent female. The nursing profession was essentially brought into existence by the Civil War. At the onset of the war in 1861, there were no official nursing schools. The massive number of wounded soldiers prompted the establishment of the United States Sanitary Commission, which paid male staffers to coordinate nursing supplies and services and sent thousands of women into the field as volunteers. After the war, when these women transitioned into hospital service, their wages remained lower than those of men in medicine. (As it does today: As of 2015, nurses made an annual average of $70,000, while physicians and surgeons made $189,760.)
As the movement for women’s rights and suffrage grew toward the turn of the last century, a growing chorus began calling for equal pay. Workers for the Western Union Telegraph Co. staged an 1883 strike to protest inequity. In 1891, The Washington Post’s editorial board declared, “The working world is rapidly coming to apprehend the justice of giving equal remuneration to women who do as much and as good work as men.” But these declarations did not gain legislative traction until the male workforce had a stake in pay equity, which didn’t occur until World War I, when women took over what had traditionally been male jobs.
In 1918, the United States Employment Service began encouraging female workers to take up the jobs being vacated by men who were called up to serve in the war in Europe. Many of those men expressed concern that when they returned to these positions after the war, their wages would be deflated. The National War Labor Board therefore issued a proclamation mandating equal pay: “If it shall become necessary to employ women on work ordinarily performed by men, they must be allowed equal pay for equal work.”
In other words, women’s wages should be fair — as long as they were temporarily performing a man’s job. And so while in industries like manufacturing, especially for ammunition, women received paychecks equal to their male counterparts’, the gap persisted across other fields such as teaching and retail sales.
These gendered ideas about work continued to undermine efforts for equal pay in the aftermath of the war. In 1947, Secretary of Labor Lewis Schwellenbach introduced the Women’s Equal Pay Act, which he argued for on the grounds of “economic justice.” Schwellenbach’s proposal faced significant blowback and was quickly defeated. Veterans were returning home, and the workforce was swelling with men, so legislators weren’t eager to financially incentivize women to leave the home and build careers.
As the 1950s unfolded, newspapers and corporations embraced the image of the stay-at-home mom while television flooded American living rooms with the message of the “traditional” family in popular programs such as “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver.” The none-too-subtle flip side of the message was the denigration of women seeking careers outside the home while portraying the work done inside the home as undeserving of pay.
Efforts to preserve the image of the breadwinning husband and female homemaker ignited a rapid growth of movements for women’s and civil rights. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law. But the limitations of this new legislation were almost immediately apparent. It still permitted differences in compensation based on merit, left largely to employers to judge, and it thus failed to prevent employers from discriminating, whether consciously or subconsciously, in evaluating female workers.
Moreover, as a 1964 Time magazine article pointed out, an equal-pay mandate wouldn’t remedy the preference for male job applicants: “The new U.S. equal pay law may cost women some of their jobs because — other things being equal — many companies prefer to hire men.” Even as women rushed into the workforce, the income of working wives in comparison to their husbands actually fell between 1960 and 1980. In the 1970s, the Institute for Research on Poverty investigated why highly educated women were less likely than men to meet their “earnings potential” and found that many were accepting part-time, less demanding jobs so as not to forgo their domestic and child-care responsibilities.
And so, despite the slew of court cases addressing the pay gap — Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co. and Corning Glass Works v. Brennan — women still earn less. Why? Because of the persistence of stereotypes that drive women toward service labor that draws on a traditionally feminine, domestic skill set. The teaching force? Seventy-seven percent female. Social work? Eighty-two percent female. Flight attendants? Seventy-four percent female. These jobs all require competencies — child care, food provision, even emotional labor — that women have long been expected to perform in the home without compensation.
The employment website Glassdoor recently examined 46,934 résumés shared by people who graduated between 2010 and 2017, analyzing each person’s college major, post-college jobs and median pay. Their findings were stark: College majors that lead to higher-paying professions are male-dominated, and those associated with lower wages are female-dominated. As of 2016, women made up 55 percent of middle-skill workers but 83 percent of those in positions paying less than $30,000 a year, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In the fast-growing gig economy, where workers often name their own rates, female freelancers have been shown to charge lower rates than those of men and receive their pay late.
Embedded in the very DNA of Americans’ understanding of work is a devaluation of women’s time and skills. Men’s contributions to the public sphere — as doctors, lawyers, soldiers — have always tended to be fairly priced. Meanwhile, when women translate the tasks they’re expected to offer a household into a full-time job, they don’t receive the pay that they’re due. That’s why legislative advances on equal pay continue, but female workers don’t always see their effects.
The pay gap can’t be erased with the swish of a legal magic wand. Its roots go deeper into American society, striking at the core of our understanding of what constitutes work.