Equal education, unequal pay: Why is there still a gender pay gap in 2024?

That difference is coming into stark view on Equal Pay Day, and in spite of the fact that women comprise more than half of college-educated workers and participate in the labor force at record rates

gender pay gap
Chantel Adams, a senior marketing executive, sits in her home office Thursday, March 7, 2024, in Durham, N.C.Chris Seward (AP)

Not even education can close the pay gap that persists between women and men, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report.

Whether women earn a post-secondary certificate or graduate from a top-tier university, they still make about 71 cents on the dollar compared with men at the same education level, Census Bureau research found.

That difference is coming into stark view on Equal Pay Day, and in spite of the fact that women comprise more than half of college-educated workers and participate in the labor force at record rates.

Rather than comparing full-time working men to full-time working women, the Feb. 22 Census Bureau report juxtaposes men and women with the same education caliber: graduates of certificate degree programs and those who hold bachelor’s degrees from the most selective universities, explained economist Kendall Houghton, a co-author of the research. The report also includes graduates who may have opted out of the labor force, such as women taking on child care responsibilities.

“The main point here is that there’s a substantial gap at every single level,” added Census Bureau economist and co-author Ariel Binder.

Field of study, choice of occupation and hours account for much of the discrepancy, but not all. Field of study, for instance, contributes to the pay gap much more for top graduates (24.6%), but for less selective degree holders accounted for only a sliver (3.8%). And the number of hours and weeks worked affect the pay gap more for certificate earners (26.4%) than selective bachelor’s degree earners (11.3%), suggesting there is a bigger gender difference in work participation for certificate holders, Binder said.

At the same time, about 31% of the gap for each education level remains unexplained, suggesting less easily measured factors such as gender stereotypes and discrimination may be at play.

Chantel Adams says she isn’t surprised that the gender pay gap persists even among men and women with the same level and quality of education, or that the gap is wider for Black and Hispanic women.

A senior marketing executive who holds an MBA from University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Adams said her qualifications aren’t enough to counteract the headwinds she faces in her career as a Black woman.

Despite taking on extra responsibilities and an undisputedly strong performance, Adams said she was turned down for a promotion because she was told that “I was so articulate and sharp that it was intimidating to some people.”

“I have nearly $300,000 of post-high school education. It would be surprising if I weren’t articulate and sharp,” said Adams, who is based in Durham, North Carolina.

She said her peers at the company — one of whom did not have an MBA — were promoted while she was held back two years in a row.

“It’s unreasonable and unfair to hold someone’s strengths against them,” Adams said. “I would consider that as something that is race-based.”

Broadly, younger women are closer to wage parity with younger men, according to Carolina Aragao, who researches social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center. But the gap widens between the ages of 35 and 44, which coincides with when women are most likely to have a child at home.

“That does not play out the same way for men,” Aragao said, adding that there is actually an opposite phenomenon known as the fatherhood premium, in which fathers tend to earn more than other workers, including men without children at home.

Despite women making vast gains in C-suite and high-earning industry representation, wage gap improvement has stalled for about 20 years, Aragao said. Uneven child care and household responsibilities, falling college wage premiums, and overrepresentation in lower-paying occupations are all contributors to why the pay gap stubbornly remains.

For Adams, the best strategy to overcome them has been to keep changing jobs — six times in 10 years, across multiple states in her case.

“I knew that I needed to be intentional and move with urgency as I navigated my career in order to work against that headwind,” she said. “When those opportunities were not afforded me within one company, I’ve gone elsewhere.”

Adams said job coaching, mentorship, and support from Forte Foundation, a nonprofit focused on women’s advancement, have been instrumental to her success, while salary transparency laws — and even salary transparency within social circles — could help alleviate the significant pay gap challenges women of color face.

But corporate diversity initiatives have been subject to a growing list of lawsuits ever since the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions. Adams said she worries that without affirmative action, corporate racial diversity could decrease, too.

“The big question that is looming over my head and probably many other executive leaders is: What does that do to the pipeline of diverse candidates that we may or may not have 10 years from now?” Adams said.

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