No matter how available wage data is sliced and diced, a single truth remains: a wage gap exists between male and female workers. On average, full-time female workers make 23 percent less than male full-time workers. And for women of color, the gap in wages is even larger. African American women and Hispanic women working full- time make far less, on average – 62 percent and 53 percent respectively – compared to white, non-Hispanic men.
There is a gap in wages in every part of the country, with women in Wyoming and Louisiana making just 66 percent of male earnings. Even in the District of Columbia, where the wage gap is the smallest, women make 88 percent of male earnings. And although the Department of Labor has documented a gap in wages in every field, sales occupations are particularly behind the times. Women working full-time in sales occupations earned only 64 percent of their male counterparts' earnings in 2010 - the highest of any occupation. In fact, the last time the overall wage gap was so large was 1981, when women across all occupations earned just 64.4 percent of men's earnings.
This gap in wages is not merely the result of women's "choices" in career or family, as study after study has demonstrated. Even when researchers have controlled for demographic differences between male and female employees, such as worker qualifications, experience, occupation type, and industry, a persistent gap in wages remains. To name results from just a few recent studies, the gap in wages between male and female physicians has only increased over the past decade, even after controlling for medical specialty, hours and practice type. And women with MBAs were paid less than men in their first post-MBA job and experienced less salary growth thereafter. These and many more studies, together with the countless pay discrimination cases filed around the country, show that pay disparities remain an entrenched problem.
Set against the backdrop of widespread disparities in pay, there is a tremendous amount at stake in the pay and promotions discrimination class action that will be argued in the Supreme Court on March 29th. In Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Supreme Court will determine whether a nationwide class of women workers challenging alleged sex discrimination by Wal-Mart in pay and promotions can proceed. According to the plaintiffs' evidence, women at Wal-Mart on average earned $5,000 less than men, even though women tended to have higher performance ratings and more seniority. Women also were less likely to be promoted to store manager positions and had to wait significantly longer for promotions than men. The Court's decision will also effectively determine whether workers can continue to challenge company-wide discrimination by larger employers.
Title VII was intended to eradicate precisely the type of pernicious discrimination that is alleged in this case. Indeed, a company-wide class challenge is the only effective way to remedy company-wide discriminatory practices. With the average wage gap at 77 percent, women and their families are watching closely to see whether the Court's holding will continue to allow the class action vehicle to be a critical tool for employees to challenge pay discrimination. In this economy, the stakes could not be higher.
Fatima Goss Graves is Vice President for Education and Employment at the National Women's Law Center.