Women, Poverty, and the Gender Wage Gap

Let’s commit to making the gender wage gap history.

Despite progress towards gender equity over the past several decades, women are far more likely to experience poverty than men.In fact, women are 38% more likely to live in poverty than menThat’s 16.3 million women in the United States, or more than one in eight. And women of color experience poverty at much higher rates than White women.

The gender wage gap is a significant contributing factor to women’s disproportionate experience of poverty.

Closing the gender wage gap would cut in half the poverty rate of working women and their families. In 2017, on average, women earned 80.5 cents for every dollar that White men earned. The gap is even wider for women of color: Latinas earned on average 53 cents and Black women earned 60.8 cents. Data from years prior to 2017 show that Native women fare even worse — an average of 57 cents; and while Asian women on average earn 87 cents, many subgroups of Asian women earn much less — as low as 51 cents. So, what are some of the factors that contribute to the gender wage gap?

Differences in occupation and industry account for about half of the gender wage gap.

Widely accepted gender norms and discrimination, expectations of family and guidance of mentors, as well as the hiring and recruiting practices of employers, influence a woman’s occupational and industry choices. Overall, only 6.3% of women work in male-dominated occupations, and only 5% of men work in female-dominated occupations. Progress in occupational integration has stalled.

Women earn less than men in nearly every occupation, including occupations dominated by womenWhen women enter higher earning industries dominated by men, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, not only do they experience high rates of sexual harassment, but overall pay in the industry decreases. This disparity reflects how undervalued women’s work is.

Women have the most undervalued jobs.

Women make up two-thirds of minimum wage earners in the United States. Commonly, these low-wage jobs come with insufficient hours, without advanced scheduling, and require on-call hours without pay. And these jobs are disproportionately filled by women of color and immigrant women.

Moreover, women are also simply paid less because they are women.

Women too often face wage discrimination, even when they are doing significantly similar jobs, with equivalent education, skills, and experience levels as the men who earn more than they do.

Raising the minimum wage, eliminating subminimum wages, particularly for tipped workers, providing paid time off for sick days and family and medical leave, and providing reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, motherhood, and caretaking responsibilities are just some of the policies we need in place to reduce the gender wage gap and ensure that women are not penalized for the constraints they face in the labor market. Correcting gender-based pay inequities would close 68 percent of the gender wage gap.

One solution gathering steam is strengthening both the federal and state equal pay laws to bar employers from asking job applicants about their salary history. In Illinois, the Shriver Center is advocating for the No Salary History BillHB 4163, which would amend the state’s Equal Pay Act to do just that. After all, a salary should be based on the qualifications an employer deems necessary for an employee to be successful in that position, not on the gender of the applicant.

Let’s commit to making the gender wage gap history.

This past decade saw the slowest progress toward closing the gender wage gap in nearly forty years. Low-wage working women and women of color bear the brunt of that lack of progress. We must foster a society that believes in the abilities of girls, values “women’s work,” and encourages women and girls to pursue a range of career possibilities. The time is now for emboldened advocacy to reduce the gender wage gap and lift women out of poverty.

[UPDATE: Both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly approved HB 4163, but Governor Rauner vetoed it. The governor’s suggested language would let employers who discriminate escape liability. The Shriver Center will continue fighting for policies that lift women out of poverty.]

*Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series on our 2018 legislative agenda. Read more about our agenda here.

About the Author

Wendy Pollack
Wendy Pollack
Wendy Pollack
Women's Law & Policy Initiative Director


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Everyone should be paid decently and have basic workplace protections.

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