GAO Finds Disparities in Pay and Opportunities for Women Continue
WASHINGTON — It was one of inescapable advertising slogans of the late 1960s.
“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” the ads for Virginia Slims “ultra-smooth” cigarettes declared.
Every ad crafted for the product by the creative team at the Leo Burnett agency put a young, fashionably dressed woman front and center, the entire campaign being an unabashed attempt to cash in on the new feeling of equality, independence and liberation associated with the then-burgeoning women’s movement.
But a new report from the Government Accountability Office, released on Tuesday to coincide with “Equal Pay Day,” suggests women still have a long way to go when it comes to getting the top leadership positions and top pay even in industries where women make up a significant percentage of the workforce.
Perhaps even more sobering, it appears that even 23 years into the 21st century, the higher women climb up the corporate ladder, the greater the disparities between their wages and those of their male counterparts.
The report the GAO delivered to Congress is a follow-up to a 2022 analysis, in which the office found that women were underrepresented in management positions. In response, the House Oversight Committee asked the office to further assess disparities for women in the U.S. workforce, including women’s representation and pay by industry.
Equal Pay Day is the symbolic day dedicated to raising awareness of the gender pay gap.
The date, which varies by year, symbolized how far into the year the average woman must work (in addition to her earnings the prior year) in order to have earned what the average man had earned the entire previous year.
The GAO found that the gender pay gap varied widely across industries, and was greater for managers than non-managers, in recent years.
In 2021, women working full time earned an estimated 76 cents for every dollar that men earned, on average, across all industries combined.
Women’s pay by industry ranged from an estimated 57 cents on the dollar in the health care and social assistance industry to 93 cents on the dollar in the construction industry.
Across all industries combined, the pay gap was greater for managers than for non-managers (an estimated 71 cents and 77 cents on the dollar, respectively).
Analyzing U.S. Census Bureau data, the GAO found, like last year, that women continue to be underrepresented in management positions in most industries, and that male and female managers had different demographic characteristics.
For instance, GAO estimated that in 2021, across all industries combined, 42% of managers were women, which was less than the percentage of women in non-management positions (48%).
However, women’s representation in management positions increased slightly, by less than 2 percentage points, between 2018 and 2021.
In addition, in 2021, female managers were more likely than male managers to be under age 40 and have at least a bachelor’s degree.
At the same time, female managers were also less likely than male managers to be White, married or have at least one child in their household.
The GAO also found that the gender pay gap was greater in recent years for women with certain demographic characteristics.
For example, for every dollar earned by White men, on average, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander women earned an estimated 49 cents, and Asian women earned an estimated 86 cents.
In addition, the pay gap was greater for female managers who were aged 40 and older, had at least a bachelor’s degree, were married and had at least one child in their household.
These findings were similar for women who were not managers.
Democrats on the Oversight Committee responded to the report Tuesday with outrage.
“This report confirms what we have long known: that despite playing a critical role in the workforce, women are still not paid equally for equal work,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., in a statement posted to Twitter.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the ranking member of the committee, went further in his own statement on Twitter, characterizing the pay disparity as an “outrageous ‘women’s tax’” amounting to tens of thousands of dollars a year, due to “pervasive wage discrimination across the country.”
Both suggested the GAO report makes clear that it is long past time for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.
The act would essentially build upon the anti-discrimination protections dating back to the 1960s — The Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act — which, respectively, made it illegal to pay women less than men for the same work, and banned unequal pay for the same work based on race, sex, color, national origin and religion.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would, among other things, require employers to prove pay differences are the result of legitimate business qualifications and prohibit retaliation for sharing pay information with colleagues.
The act would also stiffen penalties for businesses that continue to pay women less than men for the same work without a reasonable explanation, like a difference in qualifications.
The bill — now H.R. 17 — has a long history. It has been introduced and considered in every Congress since 1997, but has consistently failed to reach a president’s desk for his signature.
According to Congress.gov, the closest the bill came to passage was in 2021 when Democrats used their majority in the House to advance the bill. It ultimately died in the Senate, however, due to a Republican filibuster.
Democrats said the findings made clear it’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it harder for businesses to pay women less than men for the same work.
“It matters to our children and families and our economy as a whole,” Dingell said in a statement. “When women succeed, our country succeeds.”
The Well News has reached out to the Republican majority on the House Oversight Committee, and to its chairman, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., for comment.
In the past both Republicans and business groups have opposed the legislation on the grounds that it could inspire a rash of frivolous litigation and tie employers’ hands when it comes to legitimate compensation decisions.
In a 2021 letter to Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it strongly supports equal employment opportunity and appropriate enforcement of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“However, this bill would, among other things, significantly erode employer defenses for legitimate pay disparities, expand remedies under the EPA to include unlimited punitive and compensatory damages, and impose invalid tools for enforcement by the Labor Department,” it wrote.
Such assertions have so far proven unconvincing to Democrats like Dingell. “This disparity [identified in the GAO report] is unacceptable, and it’s past time for our politics to catch up and pay women what they deserve,” she said.
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue
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