Even in a pre-coronavirus world, the gender pay gap — the difference between what men are paid compared to what women are paid for the same job — would be an important issue worth resolving.
But coronavirus has radically changed how we interact with each other and how we work. It is forcing us to ask hard questions about the economy and our finances. Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day when women’s earnings “catch up” to men’s earnings from the previous year, takes on meaning it never has in the past.
According to AAUW’s research on the gender pay gap, The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap, women make about 80 cents for every dollar paid to a man.
Equal Pay Day isn’t a set day because as the gender pay gap improves or worsens the exact day changes. Last year it was April 2. This year, it’s Tuesday, March 31.
Broken down by state, Hawaii does better than the national average at 83 cents for every dollar a male makes and is 17th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Yet in Hawaii the gap is actually widening, with women making 84 cents for every dollar a male made in 2015.
The gender pay gap doesn’t just affect women. It hurts all working families.
Today, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report, women make up the majority of the workforce. AAUW’s research found that two-thirds of women are either the primary- or co-breadwinner for their families. Hawaii’s infamously high cost of living means that, in many families, both partners work to sustain the household.
The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic will push many families to the breaking point. Unemployment filings are hitting historic highs. Businesses are reducing their staff to the bare bones, if they’re open at all. This situation is exacerbated by the gender pay gap and magnified for women who are the sole breadwinners. Women must juggle working from home while caring for their children during the extended spring break and during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
The gender wage gap also adds to the anxiety women face if they’re laid off. Unemployment benefits are tied to what someone was making, and the amount women will receive on unemployment — which is a fraction of what they made — is less. This forces families to make hard decisions about keeping health insurance, food or keeping a roof over their head.
Finally, the frontline of the fight against coronavirus is mostly female, or soon will be. Since 2015, women have made up the majority of overall medical students across the country according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In the nursing field, women fill an overwhelming majority of the jobs at 87% in 2018 according to research done by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
With these facts in mind, closing the gender pay gap in these uncertain times is more important than ever. The economic recovery of Hawaii and the nation will be accelerated the sooner everyone is paid equitably. When this horrible pandemic finally ends, we must commit to paying women what we pay men.
Younghee Overly is public policy chairperson for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) of Hawaii; Colin Moore is director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.