Equal Pay Act turns 50: What are the forces holding back the wages of both women and men?

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which President John F. Kennedy signed into law in 1963 to help combat wage discrimination based on gender. Since that time, the gender gap in wages has indeed improved significantly, particularly since the late 1970s. In 1979, the median hourly wage for women was 62.7 percent of the median hourly wage for men; by 2012, it was 82.8 percent.

One thing to note is that a big chunk of the improvement in the gender wage gap since the 1970s—more than a quarter of it—was happening because of men’s wage losses, rather than women’s wage gains. With the exception of a period of labor market strength in the late 1990s, the median male wage has decreased over essentially the entire period since the late 1970s. That has made the gender wage gap smaller, but it certainly isn’t the kind of improvement anyone wants to see.

It is important to note that the forces that were holding back male wage growth over this period were also acting on women’s wages, but the gains made by women over this period in educational attainment, labor force attachment, and occupational upgrading more than overcame these adverse forces (at least until the last decade, when women’s wages have also dropped).

What are the forces holding back the wages of both women and men? Essentially, economic policy has not supported good jobs over the last 35 years. Rather, the focus has been on policies that were advertised as making everyone better off as consumers: deregulation of industries, the Federal Reserve Board prioritizing low inflation over full employment, the weakening of labor standards including the minimum wage, a “stronger” dollar, and the move toward fewer and weaker unions. In fact, these policies have served only to make the already-affluent better off.  They have eroded the individual and/or collective bargaining power of most workers, widened wage inequality among both women and men, and depleted access to good jobs.

There have been a lot of great articles recently (for example, here) about the large remaining gender gap in wages, and the work that needs to be done to get more women access to good jobs.