The long and frustrating history of the gender wage gap

It’s been a road fraught with sexism and discrimination, and some estimates suggest it will still take 40 years to close the pay gap between the average man and woman—and much longer if you factor in race.

The long and frustrating history of the gender wage gap
[Photo: insspirito/Pexels; Karen282/Pixabay]

If you look at average national pay-disparity numbers, you can calculate that it will take American female workers until March 24 of this year to earn the same amount of money that men did performing the same work over the course of 2020. This is why activist group the National Committee on Pay Equity designated March 24 Equal Pay Day for 2021. According to research from PayScale, the “uncontrolled gender pay gap” (defined as the ratio of the median earnings of women to men without controlling for various factors such as race) has decreased just 7¢ since 2015; in 2020, women earned 81¢ for every $1 a man made.


The gender pay gap garners a lot more attention during Women’s History Month, and certainly around Equal Pay Day. However, the debate around fair compensation has deep roots that date back to a war—but not the one most commonly known for getting women into the workforce.

The Civil War and the origins of underpaying women

Even before Rosie the Riveter flexed her forearm in a show of female fortitude in the face of fascism abroad, the Civil War had taken its toll on the ranks of men in the U.S. workforce. It was then that U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Francis E. Spinner, who served Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant, saw fit to supplement the decimated American workforce by hiring women. Spinner started with Jennie Douglas of Ilion, New York, in 1862 and proceeded to bring on a slew of women “to cut and trim new ‘greenback’ currency.”

There were plenty of white women clamoring for work (remember, at this point in history many Black women were still enslaved), so the supply of candidates greatly exceeded demand. This only partly explains why women were paid $600 per year (which works out to roughly $15,500 today, adjusting for inflation)—about half of what men doing the same job were earning.

After a few years of this unfair practice, a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1869 shone a light on the inequality: “Whatever arguments may be urged, with more or less force against the theory of woman’s political equality with man, very few persons deny the justice of the principle that equal work should command equal pay without regard to the sex of the laborer. But it is one thing to acknowledge the right of a principle and quite another to practice it.”

Late 1800s: ‘women’s work’ gets codified

The cheap labor was too good for the government to pass up, but the division of printing at the treasury did attempt to apply an equal pay principle in a Congressional report that same year. Female clerks were subjected to the same kind of harassment that still cuts through the workforce today, so the argument shifted to accusing women of wielding their sexuality in the workplace, essentially tempting their male coworkers. The notion that men and women couldn’t work together, because the temptation was just too great, shut women out of many types of jobs. And those jobs that were then held only by men paid better wages.


Although legislation came close to passing and closing the gender wage gap, it ultimately stalled out. According to the History News Network, “instead, what Congress passed was a law allowing supervisors to appoint women to the graded class of clerkships available to men. But since there was no incentive for such an appointment, most women remained in lower paying ‘female’ positions.” This effectively ushered in the concept of “occupational sorting,” which dictated that women could hold only certain jobs (nurse, teacher, etc.) and has stubbornly persisted to this day.

This concept of “women’s work” also continued to undermine the efforts of Black women to get better jobs, even though their participation in the labor force was much higher than that of their white counterparts. For example, in 1880, 35.4% of married Black women and 73.3% of single Black women were working, while just 7.3% of married white women and 23.8% of single white women were in the workforce. But Black women were relegated to low-wage work in either domestic service or agriculture.

And that’s essentially meant that entire classes of occupations that typically fell into the category of so-called women’s work have, historically, been underpaid—even when legislation existed to support closing the gap. For example, the Grady bill of 1891 required New York City teachers to be paid fairly. During the same decade, advocates agitated for equal pay for women in part by publishing a “White List” of stores to boycott because of unfair labor practices for women.

The notion of women’s work pushed into the 20th century. In 1908, future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis defended a 1903 Oregon law forbidding women to work longer than 10 hours a day. This “protection” was simply thinly veiled sexism as he argued, “women are fundamentally weaker than men in all that makes for endurance.” 

Two world wars bring temporary pay equity

At the dawn of WWI In 1918, lists of jobs deemed suitable for women were made available by the United States Employment Service so men could take others that supported the war effort. Since they were doing the same work, the National War Labor Board argued in favor of paying them the same wages.


A similar scenario presented itself during WWII where the aforementioned Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of female empowerment and thousands of women scrambled to be “doing their part” for the war effort. So while women took jobs that were typically held by men and were paid equally, the real reason behind the equity wasn’t based in fairness, rather, it was a way to ensure that when the men returned from their tour of duty, they could resume those jobs at the same pay. 

There is no sex difference in the food she buys or the rent she pays, there should be none in her pay envelope.”

The momentum might have carried the day when former Secretary of Labor Lewis Schwellenbach made an attempt to legalize equal pay in the private sector. He argued: “There is no sex difference in the food she buys or the rent she pays, there should be none in her pay envelope.” The legislation never passed.

1960s and 1970s and the power of Title VII

President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Law into effect in 1963 despite opposition from business leaders and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to national legislation on the books. But it wasn’t until Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, origin, color, religion, or sex that women had more leverage to be paid equally. And that only happened because traditionally certain congressmen tried to get the Civil Rights Act thrown out by trying to add a provision about sex. Yet the gambit failed that year and “sex” snuck onto the list of things businesses couldn’t discriminate against.

Employers continued to discriminate against and exclude Black women from better-paid positions until the 1970s, relegating them to private domestic service for white families. This persisted even after larger numbers of white married women entered the labor force during that decade.

Shortly thereafter, in 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court banned sex-segregated “help wanted” advertising as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended.


Present Day: Lilly Ledbetter, and achingly slow progress

We’re still not much closer to closing the wage gap despite recent legislation. President Barack Obama bookended his administration by signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act which allows victims, usually women, of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck. 

Obama attempted to reinforce that by proposing the Paycheck Fairness Act which aimed to close the gender wage gap by requiring companies with 100 or more employees to report their staff’s pay broken down by race, gender, and ethnicity to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The effort was stymied during the Trump administration, but the EEOC is on track to start collecting data this April.

The fact that these rulings on equal pay have come ad hoc throughout the past 100 years means that there is still a ways to go before women reach full constitutional equality. Until it does, women on average earn about $11,000 less per year than men, based on median annual earnings. This adds up to nearly half a million dollars over a career.

Some estimates suggest it will take 40 years to close the gap between the average man and woman. This is much longer if you consider race. The National Partnership for Women and Families found that African American and Hispanic women have an even more significant gender-based wage gap, not just when measured against men, but also compared to white women. And they continue to be overrepresented in the service sector. The most recent BLS data shows that 28% of Black women are employed in service jobs vs. only a fifth of white women.

But this isn’t surprising. The U.S. is far behind the rest of the world in offering paid parental leave—there is currently no federal legislation—which would benefit all genders. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another century to get us there.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.