Gender Gap

Add It Up: The Cost of a Lifelong Wage Gap

It’s time to stop talking about cents on the dollar, and instead look at women’s long-term losses.

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We’ve heard the statistic too many times: The typical American woman earns just 77 cents to every dollar paid to the average man. Part of the reason we’re so weary of this troubling statistic is that this wage gap has hasn’t improved in nearly a decade. At this rate, it will take more than 40 years to close the gap. Tired though we may be, this is a statistic we can’t afford to ignore—especially when we realize how much that 23-cent pay difference really costs women over time.

When comparing women’s median earnings to those of men, the wage gap translates into an annual loss of $11,084. Those are wages lost not only by women but by families, too: Females make up 40 percent of all breadwinners in households with children under the age of 18. For women living in poverty, that money can mean the difference between public assistance and self-sufficiency. The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) breaks it down with some very real examples. An extra annual $11,000 can:

– Pay for more than a year’s worth of rent and utilities.

– Feed a household of four people for a year and a half.

– Help cover nearly 18 months of full-time childcare for a four-year-old child.

– Pay for almost three years of family health-insurance premiums in an employer-spon­sored program. (Women still pay more for health insurance than men.)  

– And for the two-thirds of college seniors graduating with debt, cover three years of student-loan payments—with $60 to spare.

Over at, women tell their own stories. With an extra $11,000, Jessica Jones would finish college, so she could earn a nursing degree and support her two sons. Tia Deines would pay all her mom’s medical bills for breast cancer. Sherri Robertson would move out of her grown children’s home.

Add up the wage gap over the course of a lifetime and the losses are staggering. A woman who works full time gives up $443,360 over 40 years. She would need to work 12 more years to make up that difference. 

According to some handy calculating by the Center for American Progress, here’s what you could do with $443,000:

– Buy two houses.

– Send seven people to college for four years at a public university.

– Purchase 14 new cars.

– Save for retirement. (As women get older, the wage gap widens—men with defined contribution plans typically save twice as much for retirement as women.)

Why is the wage gap so hard to close? It doesn’t help that Congress failed to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act last year. There are also many myths about the gap that deter action.

And it’s true, the wage gap isn’t precise. It varies by industry, region, and ethnicity. A Hispanic woman, for example, earns just 55 percent of what’s earned by a white male. The gap is affected by the fact that two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women. But it also includes discrimination: More than 40 percent of the pay gap can’t be explained by occupational and lifestyle differences.

Most importantly, the wage gap includes real-life consequences for women, their families, and the economy. Sure, we may get tired of hearing about 77 cents—but that only means it’s time to wake up and do something about it.


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