The Time is Now to Close the Gender Pay Gap

By Ann Warner
When I talk about the gender pay gap, there’s usually at least one person in the room who gives me the side eye and asks something like, “Is that really still a thing?” I can’t blame them for asking. Despite how often the gender pay gap is mentioned in the news, we don’t often unpack and explain the numbers.

To make sure we knew the extent of the gender pay gap in South Carolina, the Women’s Rights Empowerment Network asked economists at the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina to crunch the numbers. They found that South Carolina women working full time earned 73 cents on every dollar that men earned. We also asked them to break these numbers down by race. They found that African American women working full time earned 53 cents on the dollar that white men earned. These numbers clearly show that the wage gap is definitely still a thing in South Carolina and that it hurts women of color most.

There is no single reason for the gender pay gap. It reflects and reinforces multiple obstacles that women face throughout their lives.

Despite the fact that women are more highly educated than men, women are more likely to work in lower-wage jobs. Girls are often guided toward occupations that tend to pay less, such as teaching or health care. Because women assume most of the child care burden, they are more likely to take unpaid time off and to work part time, often because paid parental leave is nonexistent and child care is inaccessible or unaffordable. The fact that the wage gap persists across many industries and starts immediately upon entry into the workforce shows that women’s choices alone cannot explain the wage gap. Unconscious biases and outright discrimination still penalize women, especially women of color. Common employer actions, like requiring job applicants to report their previous salary history, perpetuate the wage gap.

Because the reasons for the wage gap are varied, multiple solutions are required. Strengthening South Carolina’s laws would make a huge difference. That is why WREN is advocating for the bipartisan Act to Establish Pay Equity, introduced in the S.C. General Assembly this year, which would help to ensure that people are paid comparably for comparable work, ban the use of salary history in job applications, and help ensure transparency and make it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for talking about their wages.

Businesses also have an important role to play. In order to remain competitive and attract talent, businesses need to attract women, especially in industries where they are underrepresented. In order to attract and retain female talent, they need to ensure that they are transparent about the wages they are offering and that these wages are fair. Fair wages, family-friendly benefits and professional development opportunities are no longer luxuries; in a tight labor market, they are business imperatives.

Educators and parents have a crucial role to play by teaching girls and boys to explore career opportunities that may be nontraditional for their gender – exposing girls to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education and exposing boys to caregiving and teaching jobs. We need to prepare our girls and boys with all the information and confidence that they need to pursue their dreams and advocate for themselves.

Ensuring fair pay practices will benefit everyone in our society. Two-thirds of families have a female breadwinner. Their earnings make a huge impact on their own financial security, on their families’ economic stability and mobility, and on the economic growth of our state. Economists estimated that if we could close the gaps in women’s workforce participation, we could unleash $5 billion in annual economic activity in our state.

In order to do that, we have to get real about the challenges we still face, and more importantly, commit to real solutions. At the current rate of progress, our granddaughters will still be talking about the gender pay gap. If we get serious now about closing it, when our daughters and granddaughters are asked, “Is the gender pay gap really still a thing?” they can finally answer with confidence, “Nope. Not anymore.”