An annual report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the gender wage gap in the United States held steady during the pandemic, with women working full-time jobs only making, on average, 82.3% of what their male counterparts do.
The disparity, which has hovered around 82% for the last decade, is even more pronounced in many Western states. In Nevada, for example, women only earn 79.8% of what men do. In Utah – which has the widest disparity of any state – their earnings are 72.7% of men’s.
But Matthew Insco, an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, says the study is not an apples-to-apples comparison.
“For all the jobs that women work in and all the jobs that men work in, women earn less,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with what types of jobs men and women work in.”
Registered nurses, teachers and administrative assistants were the top jobs held by women. More men, meanwhile, work in well-paid engineering roles.
“But we have seen that improve a lot from 40 years ago, as more women are entering some of the STEM occupations,” he added.
Sarah Purdy, a lecturer in the Department of Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno, says women can still be shut out of careers traditionally seen as male-dominated because of implicit bias in the hiring process. For example, she points to assumptions that women will focus more on their families than on their careers.
“There can be real obstacles to entering those fields,” she said. “This cycle sort of reinforces itself.”
Purdy says the roots of the gender pay gap are as old as industrial capitalism itself.
“Men were working outside the home for a wage,” she explained. “Women, whose unpaid care work within the home was equally as valuable to societies – and valued as such before that – started to become devalued because there’s no wage earned.”
Meanwhile, the federal government itself advocates for investment in women as a means to improve global fortunes.
According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, enrolling more girls in school and empowering women to serve in government can lead countries to have higher gross domestic products and more democratic societies.
“A woman multiplies the impact of an investment made in her future by extending benefits to the world around her, creating a better life for her family and building a strong community,” the agency reports.
But COVID-19 has been setting women back, according to recent research.
A 2020 poll conducted by Ipsos found female respondents were twice as likely as males to say they would mostly handle child care themselves during pandemic shutdowns.
Purdy says that can have lasting impact on a woman’s ability to earn higher wages.
“Women will often have to take jobs that are part time, or lower paid jobs, temporary jobs, and maybe can’t advance as quickly as men,” she said.
But Purdy is also encouraged by what she sees as growing awareness of the disparity. Ultimately, she hopes that will translate to greater pressure on elected officials to pass legislation aimed at reducing the wage gap.
She’s optimistic that a more expansive idea of gender could help lower inequality, too.
“I feel hopeful that change is coming,” she said.
In the meantime, some Western states managed to beat the national average: In New Mexico, women earned 87.5% of what men did.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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