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The Stubborn Persistence of the Gender Pay Gap in Massachusetts

By Anne Calef

March 31, 2022

Massachusetts has some of the strongest equal pay laws in the country, and yet women still earn an average of $0.81 for every dollar that men make, a gap one cent less than the national pay gap. For Native American, Black, and Latina women that gap is even larger—Native American women earn $0.59 for every dollar that a White male earns, Black women earn $0.57 cents, and Latinas earn just $0.51. As Women’s History Month ends, we look briefly at the gender pay gap in Massachusetts and how women’s labor force participation has shifted during the pandemic.

Women in Massachusetts earn approximately $13,000 less than men annually, and the Commonwealth ranks 17th out of the 50 states for gender pay parity. While the size of our gender pay gap is almost double that of a state like California’s, there’s one important silver lining, which is that pay is higher for both men and women in Massachusetts than in most other states. In fact, women in Massachusetts on average earn more than men in California ($57,289 vs $57,016), and women in Massachusetts earn more than women in all states/jurisdictions other than Washington D.C.

Many pay gap calculations, like the one cited above, do not control for occupation, industry, education, or hours worked. Using this more straightforward approach allows us to capture the broader state of women in the labor market, comprising the many factors that perpetuate the pay gap—including constrained career choices due to cultural expectations and care demands, pay penalties for motherhood, and discrimination. This next section looks at some (but certainly not all!) of the factors contributing to the gender wage gap. 

One driver of the pay gap is that society has undervalued work traditionally done by women. The overall pay gap shows the effects of occupational segregation, or the channeling of workers of different gender identities into jobs and industries based on gender norms and expectations. We can see this play out in Massachusetts, where occupations that tend to be disproportionately staffed by women tend to pay less. For example, electricians (of which 99 percent are men) earn $30.34 per hour, double what home health aides (of which 88 percent are women) earn. This large disparity exists even though both occupations require a high school degree or less.

Of course, broad categories like “high school degree or less” do not perfectly control for all types of education or training. Some union jobs, for instance, may involve more extensive training and certification than other jobs that don’t require formal education beyond high school. But these training differences likely do not explain the large gaps shown below. In fact, most people in the below occupations receive some sort of job-specific training or certification, so it’s not necessarily the case that higher-wage, more male-dominated occupations involve more extensive occupation-specific training.

Lower pay in occupations associated with women, such as childcare, compared to those associated with men, such as construction, is due in large part to cultural determinations of worth. For example, research has found that workers in care industries are paid less than similar workers in other fields, with women facing a larger “care penalty” than men, even after controlling for job characteristics, required skills, and qualifications. In the United States, paid and unpaid care work has been overwhelmingly conducted by women and disproportionately performed by women of color. Racial and gender-based discrimination are a large chunk of why these occupations are paid less.

The clustering of women in lower paid positions also persists in occupations that require a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median annual salary for elementary and middle school teachers, of which 80 percent are women, is approximately $63,000, just over half the median annual wage of software developers, of which 81 percent are men.

It is important to remember that occupational segregation is the product of personal preference as well as constrained choices and opportunities. Elise Gould, Jessica Schieder, and Kathleen Geier explain in their great primer, “What is the gender pay gap and is it real?” that controlling for occupation removes the accumulated effects of “discrimination that can influence a woman’s occupational choice.” Occupational segregation is, among other things, the result of years of education, cultural influences, guidance from mentors, family expectations, access to resources, employer hiring practices, and widespread norms about household labor and family caregiving.

Even within occupations, women are often paid less. Occupational segregation only explains one part of the gender pay gap. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that nationally women earn less than men in almost all occupations. For example, female financial managers earn just 64 percent of what male financial managers do—a difference of $690 per week. Even among female-dominated occupations such as registered nurses and K–12 teachers, women still earn less. In fact, economist Claudia Goldin showed that this is likely a larger driver of the gender wage gap than occupational segregation. Much of this pay difference is due to a tension between the hours and schedules that employers demand of workers and women’s caregiving responsibilities at home. Sarah Kliff’s Vox article, “The truth about the gender wage gap,” does a great job of explaining Goldin’s findings.

Caregiving expectations affect women’s earnings. Goldin finds that women in many occupations face steep penalties for any interruption to their career—such as taking time off to have a child, reducing hours, or even asking for more flexible work schedules—and at the same time are still much more likely to be responsible for childcare and household labor than men.

Unfortunately, this uneven distribution of household labor grew during the pandemic. Women reported spending an additional 124 minutes per day caring for children in 2020, compared to just an additional 81 minutes per day for men. Caregiving demands and a lack of access to childcare caused many women to exit the labor force during the pandemic. In Massachusetts, the gap in labor force participation rates for men and women grew during the pandemic and only recently returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Lack of access to childcare during prime working years reduces women’s lifetime earnings and financial security. A recent National Women’s Law Center report found that increasing the availability and affordability of childcare would boost women’s labor force participation and raise lifetime earnings for a woman with two children by $97,000, while also helping to close the racial lifetime earnings gap between White households and Black and Latina households. Improved access to childcare would allow many women, particularly those with lower incomes and levels of educational attainment, to enter and stay in the labor market, build a higher wage profile, and accumulate greater retirement and personal savings. Of course, public subsidy for childcare should not only go to external providers of care. We should also make it available to all parents (mothers or fathers) who choose to stay home and care for their young children themselves.

What have we done so far and what else can we do? Nationally, progress on closing the gender wage gap has slowed in the past three decades. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the wage gap narrowed just 1.1 percentage point between 1994 and 2021.

Massachusetts has taken important steps to close the wage gap during that time. Actions such as prohibiting the use of salary history in hiring and prohibiting retaliation for disclosing wages help protect women from discrimination and bias. The Commonwealth also passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2014 that ensures time off, worker protections, and a minimum wage for workers in several key occupations that have traditionally been performed by women (i.e., house cleaners, nannies, and personal care aides). Women in Massachusetts do earn more than women in any jurisdiction/state other than D.C., but large gaps between women and men unjustly persist, so important work remains in order to approach equity. And local advocates are pushing Massachusetts to do that work.

The Wage Equity Now Coalition, of which the Boston Foundation is a member, is advocating for the state legislature to pass a wage transparency bill (S. 2721) that would require all employers with 100 or more employees to report the average wages by gender, race, and ethnicity as well as the demographics of the top 10 earners by race, gender, and ethnicity; and would require employers with 50 or more employees to provide a pay scale to job applicants and existing employees.

Meanwhile supporters are gathering energy behind the Common Start legislation (H.605 & S.362), which over a five-year timeline would establish a system of affordable, high-quality early education and childcare for all Massachusetts families. This system would cover early education and care for children from birth through age 5, as well as after- and out-of-school time for children ages 5–12, and for children with special needs through age 15.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for closing the wage gap. But if we work on all these fronts simultaneously, there is no doubt we can make further progress.

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