New Government Policies Attempt to Address Gender Wage Gap

By Courtney Colburn

Equal pay day was Tuesday, April 4, symbolizing how far into 2017 women would have to work to earn what their male counterparts made in 2016. Equal pay is once again in the news with the Department of Justice suing Google for information to see whether they pay their female employees equally; especially surprising given that Google recently made an announcement saying they have eliminated the gender pay gap.

Currently, it’s estimated that in the US women make on average 80% of what men make. For women of color, the difference is even greater. The gap also varies by state as some states have more policies in place to protect women against wage discrimination. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was enacted which prohibits gender discrimination between men and women for equal work. When the Equal Pay Act was enacted, women made less than 60% of what men make. While it has resulted in a narrowing of the gender pay gap, there is still more work to be done. Estimates say that we will reach equal pay for men and women in 70 years if current trends continue.

In addition to federal legislation like the  Equal Pay Act, every state, except for Alabama, has either a general employment discrimination law that includes women or an employment discrimination law specifically about women. Further, many states have additional policies to help minimize the gender pay gap. Massachusetts and California have both recently passed laws forbidding employers from asking for job candidates’ salary history. If an employer is not allowed to ask for a candidate’s salary, they cannot base their new wage off of their past wage. This protects women from continuing to receive lower salaries since they started at a lower salary than men and helps eliminate compounding wage discrimination over their careers. However, since both states only recently implemented this policy, there are not yet results on whether the policy is resulting in a narrowing of the gender pay gap.

Alaska, Illinois, and New Hampshire publish data on the pay gap of employers in the state. The states do not publish data on the individual employers, but aggregate the data to report on the gender wage gap in the state overall. Vermont also has policies in place to allow employees to discuss their wages with their coworkers without fear of retaliation from their employers and requires that employers consider requests for flexible work arrangements. Many of these policies were implemented recently and their is not yet definitive evidence for whether the policies are working to narrow the gap.

Internationally, many countries are attempting creative strategies to help narrow the gender pay gap. This year, Britain implemented a law that requires large companies to publicly report their gender pay gap. The first year of reported data will be available next year. They think that if individual companies are required to publicize their gender pay gap, they will be motivated to work proactively decrease the gap.

Iceland has gone the furthest of any country. They recently introduced laws requiring employers to prove they pay men and women equally, with the hope of eliminating their pay gap within the next five years (65 years ahead of current trends). They hope to accomplish this by auditing companies with more than 25 employees every three years to ensure that they are paying equally for equal work, and if not, the companies would be fined. Iceland has the most drastic policies around equal pay of any country globally, even though they currently have one of the smallest gender wage gaps. As quoted in the New York Times, Thorsteinn Viglundsson, Iceland’s social affairs and equality minister said, “History has shown that if you want progress, you need to enforce it.”


Courtney Colburn is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.