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Wage Inequity: The Threat to Workers’ Rights

July 3, 2019

How to address the gender wage gap and the racial wage gap

By Gabren Webb

Law Students on Workers’ Rights Series

The Law Students on Workers’ Rights series publishes essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, address the question “What are the biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future?”

The notion that there is true equity in the United States of America holds no more validity than a work of ancient Greek mythology. Few misconceptions are as widespread as the belief that this country has taken significant strides towards equity over the past several decades. Admittedly, the confusion is understandable––certain groups of marginalized people are doing better now than they were in the past. However, it is crucial to analyze how these classes of people are progressing not in relation to themselves, but in relation to the other, more privileged classes. When seperate groups are compared, the disparities become incredibly evident.

One persistent and distinct type of inequity is found in employee compensation in the form of wages. The gender wage gap and racial wage gap are two persistent areas of disparity. Women are, on average, paid less than men when working the same job. Similarly, people of color are paid less than their white counterparts. Therefore, I believe that the most significant challenge facing workers’ rights in the future is discrimination leading to lack of equal pay for equal work.

On average, women make just 81.8% of what men do. In fact, women of all major racial groups earn less than men of their same group. A great deal of this gender wage gap can be explained by discrimination in compensation, recruitment, and hiring. Women often face difficulty breaking into male-dominated job markets, and they are generally afforded less opportunity for advancement than their male counterparts. While this gap is troubling, it is worth noting that the gender wage gap has been narrowing, albeit by a decreasing margin, since 1980.

Slightly more alarming is the racial wage gap. While the gender and racial wage gaps are both individually important, it is essential to recognize that their coexistence intensifies their impact. Consequently, the interaction of the effects of the racial and gender wage gaps puts women of color in a particularly unfortunate position. For instance, compared to White men, Black women make 65.3%, and Hispanic women make 61.6% of their earnings. Unlike the gender pay gap, however, the racial pay gap is not narrowing in any meaningful way. For instance, the pay gap between Black women and White men has narrowed by only 9 cents over the past 35 years. For Hispanic women and White men, the gap narrowed by just 5 cents in this same period.

This relatively consistent wage gap is appalling. It is worth noting that some of the racial wage gap can be explained by the fact that lower shares of Blacks and Hispanics have college educations, which lead to higher wages. However, when only analyzing those with bachelor’s degrees or beyond, college-educated Black and Hispanic men earn about 80% of the hourly wages of college-educated White men. Furthermore, college-educated Black and Hispanic women earn only about 70% of the hourly wages of college-educated white men.

For this, there is no more convincing explanation than pure discrimination. Closing the gender and racial wage gaps will require action from individuals, employers, and policymakers. As a Black woman and future lawyer, I hope to one day have the opportunity to play a role in the eradication of discriminatory pay practices. 

I believe that a significant part in this journey will involve bringing awareness to the public. Many are unaware of the magnitude of the disparities that exist when it comes to employee compensation, and understandably so. Wage data are largely kept secret in American society, and considered an inappropriate topic of conversation. Nonetheless, eliminating the gender and racial wage gaps will require an unprecedented level of transparency at the hands of both employers and employees. 

It will therefore require a strengthening of the laws prohibiting wage discrimination. The laws currently in place simply lack the ability to completely eradicate discriminatory pay practices as they are difficult to enforce and to prove violations.

The most detrimental social issues are those that are hiding in plain sight, undetected by many and therefore unchallenged by most. This is why I firmly believe that wage disparity is one of the biggest challenges to workers’ rights: it is essentially invisible, and its revelation requires engaging in uncomfortable conversations. Despite this, there must be a normalization of these sorts of conversations in order to effectively remove wage inequity from the workplace. I hope to eventually become a key player in this movement, and look forward to playing a role in building a more truly equitable America.

Reflections from Charles Joseph

Gabren Webb sheds light on one of the hidden challenges to workers’ rights: wage discrimination. As Webb convincingly argues, wage disparities persist even when comparing people with the same education levels in the same positions. As a result, Webb points to workplace discrimination, particularly gender discrimination and race discrimination, to explain wage disparities. Wage discrimination remains a major problem for workers, though some legal protections, such as New York City’s salary history ban, try to limit wage inequity. Webb correctly points out that we need to both raise awareness and strengthen pay discrimination laws to address the problem.

Gabren Webb graduated from the University of Virginia with majors in economics and psychology. Webb joins New York University School of Law as part of the class of 2022.

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience in employment law. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $120 million for clients.

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