What that Google memo didn't tell you about pay inequality in America

The wage gap is more than simply one very memorable statistic – it’s a measure of inequality that shrinks and expands according to age, industry and race

A Google employee’s tirade against diversity efforts included a claim that the gender wage gap is a myth, in spite of mountains of data proving otherwise.

But the wage gap is more than simply one very memorable statistic – that a woman in the US earns $0.80 for each $1 a man earns. It is a measure of inequality that shrinks and expands based on variables including age, geography, industry, occupation and race.

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, said the wage gap is an “overall measure of workplace inequality”.

“Even when you control for a long list of factors like race, age, union status, education, occupation and industry, there is still a wage gap and you can’t explain it away,” Graves told the Guardian.

Graves said more attention is being paid to the issue, but: “We still have a ways to go and cannot take our eye off the ball.”


Younger women have a narrower pay gap than older women – in 2015, females aged 16-24 earned $0.88 for every $1 their male counterparts earned, while women aged 65 and older earned just $0.74, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While that might be a promising development for the future, it’s worth remembering that since records began, younger women have always had a smaller pay gap than older women. Since 1979, the pay gap has widened as women have aged and moved through their careers.


The pay gap also varies considerably across the country. Women in Utah earn $0.55 for every $1 that men in the state earn – in DC, that figure is $0.86, behind Puerto Rico, the only state or territory of the US where women actually out-earn men, by two cents on the dollar.

Those regional differences are due in part to the fact that employment varies from state to state, and different jobs have different pay gaps.

Graves said lawmakers at the state and local level are prioritizing legislation meant to address the wage gap.

“In the last 15 years you’ve only seen slight improvements which is why there is finally a sense of urgency about finally moving forward to dismantle the structural reasons that undermine women’s pay,” Graves said. “And I think we’re on the right track.”

Industry and occupation

The BLS publishes broad categories on this – women in construction have one of the narrowest pay gaps, earning 92% of what their male counterparts do, while women in financial activities earn just 71%. Using Census Bureau data, the Wall Street Journal built an interactive searchable by occupation.

Graves said certain industries, including the tech sector, have a “tremendous way to go” in responding to wage disparities.

“This is an issue that employees and consumers care about,” she said. “They care about how companies treat their employees and at this point, businesses have learned that it is not good to lose talent.”


The pay gap also varies significantly by race. Women of every race earn less than their male counterparts, but the size of that gap is not consistent. The gap is narrowest for Hispanic women (who earn 91% of what Hispanic men earn) and black women (89%), and largest for white women (77%). That gap is wide partly because white men in the US earn so much compared to others – a median of $54,000 a year on average between 2011-2015. Only Asian men surpass them, earning $60,000.

The wage gap varies significantly by race.
The wage gap varies significantly by race. Photograph: Mona Chalabi

But perhaps the most stark of these numbers is the one that looks at racial disparities in pay over time. In 2016, the Economic Policy Institute published a study which found that the gap between black and white wages in the US is at its highest level since 1979.

The pay gap between black and white Americans has widened.
The pay gap between black and white Americans has widened. Photograph: Mona Chalabi