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Gender wage gap shrank because of COVID-19, but that's not a good thing

Data shows more low-wage women were put out of work than men during the pandemic.

TAMPA, Fla. — Millions of people have been put out of work by the COVID-19 pandemic. We know women have been more impacted by pandemic job loss than men largely because industries hit hardest by the virus, hospitality and retail, are mostly led by women.

This shift of low-wage women leaving the workforce has pointed the discussion to the gender wage gap. It's known that women make less than white non-Hispanic men. Women of color make even less for every dollar their male counterparts do. For every dollar white non-Hispanic men make at work, white women make 79 cents, Black women make 62 cents, Hispanic or Latino women make 54 cents and American Indian and Alaska Native women make 57 cents.

The Institute for Women's Policy Research found that in 2020, the weekly gender wage gap for all full-time workers went from 18.5 percent to 17.7 percent, meaning the difference in pay between men and women got smaller. 

That's not good news, though.

"It actually narrowed, not for good reason but because low-wage women lost their jobs. It looks as if everyone's earnings have gone up, but it's a bit of a statistical illusion," explained Ariane Hegewisch, a research fellow at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. 

COVID-caused job losses affected women of color more than it did white non-Hispanic men and that highlights an even greater disparity.

"With the work women do, they get paid much less than men do even at the same level of qualifications. To get to a decent wage, women have to invest much more into college, training, into certificates than men. These numbers also take into account discrimination in the job," Hegewisch said.

This matters. It matters because working mothers have been heavily impacted by the job cuts made during the pandemic when women already were already making less than many of their male counterparts. Single mothers are even more at risk of being negatively impacted.

"It matters how much money you have. How much money you have to buy your kids new shoes, to invest in a house, to invest in a pension, invest in your security and how much security you have when something terrible like COVID happens," Hegewisch said.

She says fixing the gender wage gap will take time and a conscious effort. It will take changes to not only increases in pay but also to the support structures that exist for working women. 

"That includes child care, transportation, it includes school hours that work, investment in our social infrastructure," Hegewisch said.

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