The Gender Pay Gap Timeline: A Brief History of Men & Women in the U.S. Workplace

The Gender Pay Gap Timeline: A Brief History of Men & Women in the U.S. Workplace

It has not been quite 100 years since the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the constitutional right to vote. Now, after nearly a century, the U.S. still has catching up to do. As of 2018, women comprise 19% of the U.S. House of Representatives, and 22% of the U.S. Senate. Just six out of 50 states have had a female governor, and 10% still have not elected a woman to Congress. Although progress has been made, women have been underrepresented in the political sphere.


In terms of education, women now pursue college degrees as equally as men. Yet, it wasn’t until 2014 that there was an equal proportion of women and men holding a degree. The steady increase can be seen through recent decades: in 1970, 37% of women held degrees; 29% in 1980; 43% in 1990; 46% in 2000; and 49% in 2010. Yet, the degrees women and men are pursuing are different. While health professionals, education, English, and art degrees continue to be highly sought-after among women, men are the predominant degree holders in fields such as engineering and computer science.


It was also just decades ago that women began to enter the workforce. For most of U.S. history, the common perception was that a woman’s “place” was in the home. Until the 1960s and 1970s, it was unusual for women to work for wages – especially to forge a career – though men were expected to do so. The Women’s Lib and Feminism movements finally challenged these assumptions.

Indeed, women have penetrated the workforce at an increasing rate since that time. As of 2017, women comprised 46.8% of the U.S. workforce. They held 51.5% of management and professional positions, but there are still gaps worth noting. In S&P 500 companies, for instance, women make up 36% of the workforce, 25% of executives and senior managers, 20% of board members, and just 6% of CEOs. Women also comprise just 14% of the engineering workforce, and of the 150 highest-earning public companies in Silicon Valley, 43% have zero female executives. In law, women are 45% of the associates, but 22% of partners. In medicine, women are 37% of physicians, and 16% of med school deans.

Discrimination & Harassment

The overwhelming majority of individuals reporting workplace sexual harassment (80% to 90%), and nearly half of all women claim to have suffered from workplace sexual harassment. While 42% of women report having suffered workplace discrimination, 22% of men have reported the same. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) would constitutionally prohibit unequal treatment of men and women in issues such as divorce, property, and employment – but it was not ratified by the states after passing Congress in 1972.

The Non-Level Playing Field

Based on the factors discussed above, it’s clear that U.S. women remain underrepresented politically. Women pursuing careers is a fairly recent development, and today, women still hold just a small share of STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) degrees, which lead to higher-paying jobs. They also continue to be underrepresented in executive and leadership roles, and disproportionately suffer workplace discrimination and sexual harassment.

While there is little disagreement that the 75% to 80% aggregate differential in pay exists, the great disproportionality between women and men in what kinds of jobs they have suggests that this statistic must be put into context to establish a more concrete understanding of the gender pay gap.


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