Sector News

The systemic barriers keeping women behind in the workforce

May 26, 2024
Diversity & Inclusion

On March 12th, 2024, the United States celebrated its first Equal Pay Day. While this may feel like a celebration, this milestone highlights, yet again, how women are still not being paid equally. Data from The 19th shows that in 2024, women in full-time jobs earn just 84 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. For part-time jobs, it’s even worse: just 78 cents.

The Enduring Gender Pay Gap
Women’s participation in the labor force is at a record high, and the gender wage gap is slimmer than ever before in America’s history. However, the battle for pay parity is far from over. Across the country, women working full-time, year-round jobs take home just 84 cents for every dollar paid to their male colleagues. This disparity spans more than 90% of professions, according to the Federal Registrar, with women of color and those with disabilities facing even wider pay gaps. The root of this inequity lies in the barriers women face. These barriers block women from getting well-paying jobs and advancing in their careers. Additionally, women bear an unfair share of unpaid caregiving for children, the disabled, and aging family members. These duties often force them to miss work, cut hours, or leave their jobs.

The statistics show a stark reality. On average, women earn 16% less than men, yet when broken down, the disparity goes deeper, especially in more rural areas. Women of color in rural areas are among the lowest paid. For example, rural black women make only 56 cents for every dollar paid to rural white, non-Hispanic men. For Latinas, the story is equally bleak, with them earning just 55 cents for every dollar that their non-Hispanic white male counterparts take home. Compounded over decades, this pays a punishing toll. On average, a woman who starts full-time work at the age of 20 stands to lose $407,760 over 40 years compared to her male counterpart.

Progress has been slow. In 1963, women made an average of 59 cents to a man’s dollar. By 2010, nearly 50 years later, that figure had inched up to just 77 cents, rising by just half a cent each year. At this rate, the Center for American Progress estimates, utilizing 2022 census data, that the gender pay gap won’t fully close until 2067.

Rare are the exceptions where the tables are turned. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women out-earn men in only three job categories. Women only out-earn men in Compliance Officer roles and as vocational nurses, both by only 3%. They also, on average, out-earn men by 2% in roles as Wholesale and Retail Buyers. Teaching Assistants have the only role with full gender pay parity. They make $34,424 per year. Men, who work as guidance counselors, earn just $104 more.

Systemic Barriers Holding Women Back
The Broken Rung

The systemic barriers contributing to this enduring pay gap are multifaceted. For instance, women are perceived to be less ambitious than men. However, the Women in the Workplace report states women are more ambitious in their careers than before the pandemic. Flexibility often fuels that ambition. In fact, 9 in 10 women aged 30 and below aim for higher positions, and 3 in 4 want to become senior leaders.

However, the “broken rung” remains a barrier to women’s success. Women are underrepresented in senior roles that pay more. Only 87 women are promoted from entry-level to manager, for every 100 men promoted. And this gap spirals downward for women of color. As of 2023, 73 women of color have been promoted for every 100 men to managerial positions, down from 82 recorded in 2022. Women of color also face discrimination and penalties when negotiating for higher salaries and raises. This creates a vicious cycle.


Many women face microaggressions in the workplace that not only demean them but demotivate them and can contribute to feeling unsafe in their workplaces. For example, according to the same Women in the Workplace report, Asian women are 7 times more likely than white women and men to be mistaken for someone else of their race. Black women are 3x times more likely than white women and men to have to code-switch. LGBTQ+ women are 5 times more likely to hide parts of their personal lives and are also over 2.5 times more likely to worry about seeming professional. Women with disabilities are far more likely to feel pressure to perform perfectly, more so than women overall.

These additional layers create a feeling of being in a constant state of defending their right to be in their role. Women, especially women of color or those with disabilities, feel they are constantly needing to prove themselves while their counterparts are hired more for their potential.

Expectations Outside The Workplace

Societal expectations still exist that women are the default spouse or parent who will bear the majority of the household burden in traditional family structures. This expectation, in addition to an economy that demands most families have both partners bring in financial income, creates an additional uneven burden on women.

Unpaid labor, such as childcare, housework, and taking care of elderly or sick family members, limits the opportunities these women are able to pursue in the workplace. That time could be spent on career growth and promotions, yet the lack of affordable childcare and the inability of corporations to implement flexible schedules for mothers trying to balance work and family make the advancement of women nearly impossible.

This was never clearer than during the COVID-19 pandemic when we saw a major setback in women’s careers. Schools and daycares closed, and many mothers had to leave work or cut hours to care for their kids. The impact reverberated. The rate of women in the labor force dropped to 56.1% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—the lowest since 1988.

Unconscious Biases Hurt Women and Companies

Unconscious biases exist in the workplace. Due to unconscious bias, hiring managers see women as less committed, capable, or as leadership material just for having families. These biases keep women in roles that are subservient and out of leadership roles. The unfortunate reality is that in doing so, corporations are setting themselves back significantly. Companies succeed with women in leadership positions. In fact, 60% of gender-diverse companies report increased profits and productivity, 56.8% report an increased ability to attract and retain talent, 54.4% report greater creativity, innovation, and openness, and 51% report better company reputation.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment also remains alarmingly prevalent, undermining women’s authority, safety, and career trajectories. A 2022 survey by the Center of American Progress found that 1 in 3 women had been harassed by a co-worker in the past year, leading women to feel unsafe in the workplace.

Solutions to Tackle Systemic Inequity
Tackling these systemic barriers requires comprehensive efforts on multiple fronts. At the organizational level, making pay transparent and conducting regular audits can show and fix gender-based pay gaps. Dedicated leadership pipelines supporting women’s career advancement into senior roles are crucial, as are robust mentorship programs and sponsorship initiatives.

Policies like paid parental leave, flexible work hours, and affordable childcare can help women re-enter the workforce and stay in it. Training to combat biases in hiring, promotions, and performance reviews is also key.

On a broader scale, giving more people access to education can open up higher-paying jobs. Women and people of color need more affordable access to education in lucrative STEM fields and skilled trades. Efforts to encourage young women to enter these male-dominated areas could pay off for generations to come. They could also help women become more confident and help eliminate both conscious and unconscious biases.

Fundamentally, a cultural shift is needed in how workplaces and wider society view and value women’s labor — paid and unpaid. Only by seeing and sharing the “invisible work” of managing households and families can women reach equal footing at work and home.

Systems disadvantaging women didn’t arise overnight – and they won’t be dismantled overnight either. After decades of glacial progress on pay equity, workplaces can no longer accept the status quo. Creating fair, inclusive environments empowers women to thrive, and help organizations to grow. It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s an economic imperative for companies. Attracting and keeping top talent in a competitive market isn’t just a cost-saving initiative, it’s an organizational reputation-saving one as well. As this year’s Equal Pay Day highlighted, the enduring fight for true parity must be accelerated through bold, decisive action.

by Kara Dennison, SPHR

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