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The Hidden Sexism Lurking Behind the Pay Gap

Let’s stop arguing about how much of the pay gap is due to women’s “choices.” Those choices are often products of sexism hidden from view.
(Photo: nicmcphee/Flickr)

(Photo: nicmcphee/Flickr)

Today is Equal Pay Day, which marks how far into the year the average American woman must work to earn what her male counterpart earned last year. The pay gap, for full-time, year-round workers, currently stands at 78 cents to the dollar and hasn’t narrowed for the past decade. At this rate, according to a recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, we won’t achieve pay equality until 2058.

Of course, in a nation of 300 million diverse people with staggering economic inequality, exact earnings are determined by a complex interaction between individual choices and structural forces.

Recent research has determined that 20 to 40 percent of the gap is entirely “unexplained”—and likely involves at least some discrimination.

Like all crude averages, the pay gap tells us a lot about the existence of a problem but little about the particular dynamics causing it. Even slicing the data further to show how the gap is worse for some subsets of women, such as women of color, doesn’t reveal much about exactly why it occurs.

And in recent years, conservatives—to justify their opposition to legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act aimed at closing the pay gap—have attempted to brush away the inequity as a “myth.” Any gender disparity in earnings, they argue, is a consequence of women’s “choices”—going into lower paid fields, taking time off when they have kids, not negotiating a raise hard enough—instead of discrimination.

In response, progressives have pointed out that even after accounting for these factors, recent research has determined that 20 to 40 percent of the gap is entirely “unexplained”—and likely involves at least some discrimination. Women make less than men at every education level, at every wage level, and in nearly every job—including traditionally female-dominated ones—right from the start of their careers.

Much of the discussion revolves around the belief that the pay gap is only a “real” problem if it’s due to blatant discrimination—a female worker paid less than her male co-worker for equal work—as if the other so-called “choices” aren’t related to gender inequality too. It’s difficult to claim that women’s decisions about balancing work and child rearing are ever really freely made in a country with such awful paid family leave and child-care assistance policies. And the fact that women are disproportionately concentrated in low-paid work—making up two thirds of the country’s minimum wage workers—reflects the fact that traditionally female-dominated jobs are undervalued in our sexist culture.

Since our work lives are intimately connected to the rest of our lives, the effects of gender inequality in other realms reverberate in the economic sphere, as two recent studies—on the economic costs of eating disorders and domestic violence—illustrate.


Eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, affect both genders in the United States, but women are disproportionately impacted. Though they’re thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, our cultural obsession with thinness—particularly for women—is likely behind the increasing prevalence rates over the past several decades. Unsurprisingly, the disorders tend to have a lasting negative impact on mental and physical health. But a recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that they affect long-term economic well-being too. The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that followed a population sample from adolescence to young adulthood from 1994 to 2008. In their subsample, 20.93 percent of the women and 9.63 percent of the men reported that they’d been officially diagnosed with an eating disorder or had done things like making themselves vomit, skipping meals, or taking laxatives in order to maintain their weight.

A 2004 estimate determined that domestic violence contributes to an annual loss of nearly three million work days and $100 million in pay. 

Years later, when the subjects were 24 to 33 years old, the women who’d reported disordered eating had lower levels of educational attainment, lower personal income levels, and lower odds of owning a home compared to the other women. This was true even after controlling for other factors that affect economic outcomes, such as having a supportive social environment during childhood and current mental and physical health. For the men who reported disordered eating, there seemed to be no such long-term penalty. But for women, the researchers concluded, eating disorders “during adolescence may represent a turning point that sets individuals on a different trajectory whereby they do not have the same life chances or opportunities for achievement and success throughout their adult life.”

Meanwhile, a study published in the American Sociology Review in February explored the financial burden of domestic violence. “Abundant empirical evidence documents the economic costs of abuse to individual women, including reduced wages, work hours, job experience, and employment stability,” the researchers wrote. A 2004 estimate determined that domestic violence contributes to an annual loss of nearly three million work days and $100 million in pay. It’s not difficult to see how these losses occur—whether it’s through their abusers’ attempts to control their employment or the difficulty of holding down a job while dealing with physical injuries and post-traumatic stress symptoms. In most states, it’s even perfectly legal to fire someone for being a victim of domestic abuse.

But this study was the first to consider what effect appealing to the police or courts for protection has on victim’s economic well-being. To figure it out, the study looked at the earnings trajectories of 3,923 women who applied for restraining orders against their abusers in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, from 1995 through 2000. The hope, of course, would be that taking such a step might help end the abuse or allow the victim to leave the relationship, returning them to a normal economic life. Instead, the researchers found that the period around applying for a restraining order was one of enormous economic disruption, suggesting “that not only the costs of abuse, but also the price of protection, contribute to earnings inequality and women’s economic insecurity.” Women lost between $312 and $1,018 in the year following their petitions. And the effects weren’t just short-term; the women seemed to face “both immediate and longer-term obstacles to their presence and productivity at work.” However, those who received public assistance were able to weather the blow to their economic stability, underscoring that welfare is a “vital resource” for women facing abuse.


It’s interesting to consider how these women’s experiences would be counted when it comes to the overall pay gap. Someone who never finished her Bachelor’s degree because she spent her senior year battling an eating disorder? Her lower income is “explained” by her lower educational attainment. A woman forced to quit her job—one where she’d earned seniority—and start over in a new city to escape an abusive relationship? Years later, she makes less because of her “work history.” Or the effects may be even more subtle and impossible to quantify: the professional networking events skipped so that no one would notice her not eating; the promotion passed up for fear of a backlash from her abuser; the ambitions abandoned, the promising ideas left unexplored, the books that weren’t written in the hours spent consumed with other stresses.

Despite economists’ obnoxious tendency to pretend otherwise, “the economy” does not exist in a vacuum separate from all the other social and political structures that shape our lives. As long as we live in a culture in which women regularly face sexist assaults on their bodies and psyches—demanding that they devote untold time and energy not to doing their best on the job but to simply surviving—the pay gap will persist.

It’s not all about employee discrimination, but none of it is fair.

The Gender Gap explores the persisting gender inequalities of the modern age and society's unwillingness to grapple with them.