On top of winning the World Cup, the U.S. women’s soccer team did something else truly amazing this month: They got the whole country talking about economics ― specifically, equal pay for women.
At a parade in their honor in New York on Wednesday, crowds chanted for equal pay. And the wage gap ― the difference between what men and women earn ― became the subject of conversation on sports radio and in places typically unbothered by the gender inequality.
The question now is: What’s next?
Right now in the U.S., women are paid on average 80 cents for every dollar a man earns, and the pay gap is even worse for women of color. The women’s team wage gap is even more shocking ― they’re making just 38 cents on the dollar compared to the men’s team, according to the discrimination suit the women filed in March.
For Megan Rapinoe and her teammates, the path to equal pay is a huge battle, but its parameters are clear. They know they’re not being paid as much as their male counterparts. And their fight is taking place in court, with the added lever of public pressure. (It was only seconds after they won their final match in France that the crowd started chanting “equal pay.”)
To help fix the problem, the team will likely renegotiate its contract.
For women in the U.S. more broadly, the path to closing the pay gap is winding and exponentially more complicated. There is also a contract that needs updating, but it’s essentially the entire social contract: From public policy, to business practices to the way couples negotiate family life, the whole fabric needs a rethink.
“Do everything,” said Kate Bahn, an economist and the director of labor market policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a think tank. “There’s no silver bullet.”
Women are paid less for a few reasons ― there’s sexism and pay discrimination like the soccer team faces, to be sure, but there are also structural biases. They do a disproportionate amount of child care and other kinds of caregiving work ― raising children, caring for elderly parents. That cuts into their ability to get the kinds of jobs that pay more.
Bahn, like many other economists and advocates for equal pay, points to essentially three ways to get to equal pay: Public policies that help women stay at work and fight discrimination, workplace change and cultural shifts.
First, there’s paid leave. It’s simple. Women who get paid time off after they have children can keep their jobs and move up their career ladder, according to many studies and anecdotal evidence from companies.
The trick here is to keep things equal. Men should receive the same time off as women ― and they should be encouraged to take advantage of it. Otherwise men will still be able to work more and women will lose out to their male counterparts in hiring and promotion.
Then when the baby comes, the bills pile on. Access to affordable child care is critical to keeping women, mothers, in the workforce. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has made child care a cornerstone policy proposal in her campaign to grab the Democratic nomination for president.
“We certainly hear from a lot of pregnant women and mothers who are scared about being pushed out [of jobs] and needing to work,” said Sarah Brafman, a staff attorney at the advocacy group A Better Balance. “Let’s say a woman gets pregnant. If she needs an accommodation and she gets pushed off the job, then she loses out on income. So then she’s pregnant and taking the financial hit. If she gives birth and [has] no leave, again she’s out of the workforce and not able to work.”
These are big problems considering that women make up around 40% of the primary or sole breadwinners in families with children, she points out. “You look at enormous child care costs. Families have to make a difficult choice and all of those contribute to the gender pay gap,” Brafman said.
Another problem ― the majority of the lowest paid workers in the country are women, making up more than half of minimum wage workers. Simply raising the wage floor would help close the pay gap.
All these policies are even more crucial for single mothers.
On their face, these family-friendly policies aren’t about the pay gap, but there are other laws that do tackle equal pay head-on.
There are efforts underway to make it illegal to pay men more for work that is comparable to work done by women ― for example, hotel housekeepers (mostly women) shouldn’t be paid less than hotel janitors (mostly men). New York state on Wednesday passed a provision like this.
There’s another big policy push around pay transparency. One big hurdle for women is simply finding out how their pay compares to men’s. The women’s soccer team, for example, can fight for higher wages because it knows how much its male counterparts earn.
Nineteen states now have laws that ban employers from retaliating against workers who reveal their salaries. A few years ago, employees at Google openly shared salary information in a widely circulated spreadsheet. The information led to raises for some.
Ten states and Puerto Rico now have laws banning employers from asking what a job applicant is currently earning ― and two more states have legislation on the way ― thus making it harder for pay inequities to continue. This was another facet of the pay equity law passed in New York this week.
It took a federal law ― Title IX ― to get more women playing sports in high school and college. Arguably without that law, the women’s soccer team wouldn’t be the success it is today.
Other federal and state laws also prohibit gender pay discrimination, but it is still a problem, especially for women of color, said Bahn, whose research focuses on the issue.
“When you’re at the intersection of multiple identities you get more discrimination,” she said.
There’s a need, then, to make pay discrimination laws more intersectional, she added, so workers can sue claiming pay discrimination based on race and gender combined.
The highest paying jobs in the country require long hours and a lot of flexibility on the part of workers ― think lawyers and bankers and doctors and managers who are expected to devote most of their time to the job and are compensated highly in exchange for those hours. Women, mothers in particular, lose out on that work.
In a recent New York Times article, affluent couples explained how this works: The wife ratchets back her career potential, taking a lower paying job that enables her to be home when the kids need her. The husband, then, works a grueling white collar job that rakes in the cash.
The upshot is, the man makes more money than his wife.
“Couple inequality is gender inequality,” said Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard who has studied the pay gap for decades. “Couples are in this situation where they say we can have equity at home but it’s going to cost us something.” In many cases, that cost could be thousands of dollars, she said.
Goldin said this jobs issue ― and not discrimination ― is the main driver of the pay gap. She points out that the difference between what men and women earn isn’t very large when they first enter the job market but widens over time as women take on more caregiving roles.
Public policies like those outlined above could help, but Goldin also notes that a lot of countries do have these policies ― and they still have pay gaps. In Sweden for example ― a country with enviable paid leave laws ― women are still paid about 12% less than men.
One way this changes is if workers themselves demand change, she said. Workplaces could change the very structure of such jobs to enable more equity. She points to pediatricians who have figured out a way to job-share ― making their “on call” time more manageable.
At the bottom of all this structural inequality is something that’s deceptively simple: sexism.
Women’s work is undervalued, said Bahn. “The more women who go into a profession, the more the pay drops.”
The classic example here is the job of secretary ― a role once held by men. When women started doing these jobs, the pay fell precipitously.
“That’s what we see in women’s sports,” she added. “People still look at it and say it’s a women’s team and it’s less valuable.”
As the whole country celebrates the women’s team’s victory, that’s an argument that’s becoming more and more impossible to make.