Today is Equal Pay Day, the symbolic date on the calendar when women’s wages “catch up” to what men earned in the previous year.
Across industries, white women make about 79 cents to the white man’s dollar, while black women make 66 cents and Hispanic women bring home just 59 cents.
The good news is that the gender wage gap is shrinking, if slowly. In 1970, white women earned 70 cents on the dollar. Now, women are more educated and more experienced, and society in general is more aware of the gap than ever before. Companies like Pinterest and Salesforce have made headlines vowing to close the gap within their own walls; President Obama has pushed for employers to make compensation more transparent to employees. So why is budging the needle on equal pay taking so long?
Perhaps you’re heard some of the common explanations. Men are simply more ambitious; women leave the workforce to have babies; women choose lower-paying professions. While on the surface some of those rationales appear to be justified, a more nuanced examination tells a much different story.
Here are six excuses for the gender wage gap you can stop using.
1. Men Work Harder Than Women
One oft-cited reason given for the wage gap is that men simply work harder than women: they put in more hours, don’t take as much time off, and don’t leave temporarily to have children. But that trope ignores the fact that women work every bit as hard—just not in exactly the same way.
Statistics bear it out. More women are wage earners than ever before: While there was a 46% difference in the workforce participation rate between men and women in 1970, that narrowed to just 14% in 2015. Women are the primary breadwinners in 40% of families, a number that is steadily on the rise (the New York Times reports that more than 75% of single mothers are sole breadwinners).
Not only are women working out of the home more than ever, they continue to dominate in the private sphere, looking after children, running households, and taking care of other family members. According to Mother Jones, working mothers do about 80 minutes more work every day than working dads, in the form of childcare and household duties. They also tend to pick up more of the unpaid work within the office—mentoring junior staff, volunteering for committees, even cleaning the company kitchen—than their male coworkers.
Add that all together, and women are working more today than ever before (perhaps that’s why so many of them are burning out early). As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant put it in the New York Times: “This is the sad reality in workplaces around the world: Women help more but benefit less from it.” According to one study, men who stayed late to help their colleagues were rated 14% more favorably than women who did the same thing.
2. Women Leave the Workforce to Have Children
A recent ICEDR global study found that company leaders believe that women around the age of 30 leave the workforce because they can’t find the proper work-life balance or are planning to have children. But in fact, when the same study asked women why they are actually leaving, it found that the reason had less to do with babies or balance and more with making bank. “I found a job elsewhere and it pays more” was the top response, given by some 65% of respondents.
“Motherhood is not the primary reason women around 30 are leaving organizations,” the researchers note. They’re leaving chiefly because they’re tired of making less than their similarly (or less) qualified male coworkers. The solution the authors propose? “Focus on what matters most: Pay women fairly, challenge them with learning and development opportunities, and provide them with meaningful work.”
The study highlights an important disconnect: If your boss believes you will leave the workforce in the foreseeable future to have kids, chances are he or she will pass over you for promotions and additional responsibility and instead invest in the men who they think will be around for the long haul. And that translates into less money over the course of a career.
Of course, when women do leave the workforce to have children, they pay a (literal) price for it. A study out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that “women who return to the labor force after having children face a wage penalty of 4% per child that cannot be explained by other factors.” PayScale recently collected data from over 1.4 million workers, and found that the wage gap in median earnings for women with children is an astronomical 31.1%. Meanwhile, “married men with children get the highest pay among male earners ($67,900),” MONEY reported at the time.
3. Women Just Need to Ask for More Money
The simplest way to close the gender wage gap, according to some, is to simply tell women to negotiate their salary and push for more money. Which is wonderful in theory—but in practice asking for more money is a double-edged sword. Reports NPR’s Planet Money:
In fact, two and a half times more women than men said they feel “a great deal of apprehension” about negotiating, while men initiate negotiations four times as often as women do. A new survey from the Levo League found that 83% of women “agree that it’s important to negotiate their salary and/or benefits package,” yet just 41% negotiated any part of their offer for their current job.
“In repeated studies, the social cost of negotiating for higher pay has been found to be greater for women than it is for men,” writes Hannah Riley Bowles in the Harvard Business Review. Ask your boss for more money and risk being seen as ungrateful and pushy; don’t ask for more and you’ll be paid less for the rest of your career. (That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try: MONEY has a ton of resources on asking for the money you deserve.)
4. Men Have More Education and Experience
Women are graduating from college and attending graduate schools at higher rates than men. You’d think all of that higher education would pay off.
But as it turns out, a degree doesn’t always lead to higher pay—at least not for women. A 2011 study from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that “men with some college but no degree earn about the same as women with a Bachelor’s degree,” and that “women have to have a Ph.D. to make as much as men with a B.A.”
So you can’t chalk the wage gap up to education. What about time in the workforce then? Attributing differences in pay to women’s perceived inexperience ignores the studies that show the more years a woman spends in the workforce, the bigger the gap gets between her and her equally experienced male colleagues. Women in their late 20s earn around 92% of what their male peers receive, whereas women in their early 50s make just 71% of the average man’s wages, according to a report from Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University.
“As women progress in their careers, we also see the gap increase,” says Lydia Frank, editorial director at PayScale. “So when you’re looking at an individual worker versus executive, it gets bigger at each step of the career level.” In fact, PayScale data shows that the biggest pay gap is at the executive level.
5. Men Pursue Higher-Paying, More Prestigious Careers
Okay, this one is actually true to a certain extent—men do dominate the highest paying careers in virtually every field. But it doesn’t tell the full story. “Although different job types ‘explain’ part of the pay gap, cultural and other external factors influence the occupations in which men and women work,” writes the AAUW in its report, Graduating to a Pay Gap.
Fields dominated by women—such as nursing, social work, and teaching—are typically less compensated than fields that are predominantly male, like finance. This has less to do with the skills involved and more to do with gendered preconceptions of what kind of work is valuable (spoiler: it’s not the kind traditionally done by women). Even full-time female physicians make about 24% less than their male colleagues overall, according to a new report. On the other end of the spectrum, “janitors (usually men) earn 22 percent more than maids and housecleaners (usually women),” per the New York Times.
To add insult to injury, a new study found that as women become more educated and experienced and enter traditionally male-heavy jobs, the pay declines for the job overall. The reverse, too, is true: While computer programming used to be an unglamorous, predominantly female job, it’s now one of the most lucrative careers in the U.S., and is almost exclusively male.
PayScale’s Frank says focusing on the gender wage gap often leads people to discount the “opportunity gap.” Amazon, for example, claims near parity in wages between male and female workers, yet just 39% of its workforce—and 24% of its managers—are women. That doesn’t exactly scream “equality.”
“Yes, it’s good to be making sure you’re paying [women] equally for equal work, but you also need to give them equal opportunities for work in the company, to land jobs within your organization in in-demand fields,” Frank says.
6. It’s Just 5 Cents. What’s the Big Deal?
Controlling for factors including career level, hard skills, and more, some researchers put the pay discrepancy at as little as 5% (PayScale puts the controlled wage gap closer to 3%). Which is certainly better than 21% but begs the question: Would you be cool with a 3%-5% pay cut?
According to a 2011 study from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “college-educated women working full time earn more than a half million dollars less than their male peers do over the course of a lifetime.” That 3% adds up fast. And lower wages have negative implications beyond just a woman’s current bank account: Future benefits like Social Security and how much you’re able to sock away in retirement accounts depend on your wages. Earning 3% less throughout your lifetime will significantly impact the amount of your Social Security check and size of your nest egg.
Using the 5% figure also oversimplifies a complex issue: For some industries, like finance and tech, the gap is much higher than that. “When we really drill in on specific industries or specific jobs, the pay gap can be much bigger,” says Frank. Female personal finance managers, for example, make 61.3% less than their male colleagues on average, according to BLS data, while real estate brokers and sales agents make a whopping 73.3% less.
On this 20th anniversary of the founding of Equal Pay Day, we’ll end on a hopeful note. With companies paying more attention to wage inequity and women speaking up about the issue, there’s greater hope for the next generation of women entering the workforce. The unexplained gap for 24- to 26-year-olds is just 1.9%, according to data provided to MONEY by PayScale. All things being equal, women’s wages may soon be, too.