If we elect a “girl” president, would we pay her the same as the “boy” president?

May 26, 2016

A young girl in Las Vegas recently asked Hillary Clinton if, were she elected, she would be paid the same as a male president. “This is one of the jobs where they have to pay you the same. But there are so many examples where that doesn't happen,” Clinton answered.

Unsurprisingly, inequality is a major topic in the 2016 presidential race. That discussion often takes the form of the “one percent” versus the middle class or those with low incomes, but inequality is prevalent throughout the workforce when we simply look at gaps in earnings between men and women.

Although smaller than it was 40 years ago, the pay gap between men and women has remained largely unchanged over the past decade. In 2015, for example, women’s median earnings were about 81 percent of men’s. Though the gaps vary by race, women of all races/ethnicities earn considerably less than men of that race/ethnicity.  

A 2009 report by the US Department of Labor shows that most of the disparity between men’s and women’s wages can be attributed to “individual choices.” According to that study, greater percentages of women in the labor force work part time or leave the labor force for child birth, child care, and caring for older relatives. The same study found that a larger percentage of women also value “family-friendly” workplace policies, which often come at the expense of higher salaries.

However, a new study by researchers at Cornell University shows that as women move into industries and occupations previously dominated by men, pay for those jobs fell. And even when these “individual choices” are taken into consideration, there is still a 5 to 7 percent unexplained gender wage gap between men and women. 

These gaps are real and consequential. And they have implications not just in the short term of what people can do now, but also what they will be able to do later in life. Lower earnings now mean lower Social Security benefits later. A woman earning 95 cents for every  dollar a man makes might sound trivial at first, but it adds up to a catastrophic loss over time: Over a 40-year career at $50,000 per year, a woman would lose $100,000 in earnings relative to her male counterpart.

These numbers place the discussion among political candidates in some context. Some candidates have proposed policies that could work to close the pay gap, while other policies might end up widening it. There are a few, however, that would directly affect the earnings gap between men and women.

Yet, even these policies (and others not mentioned) won’t fully address the pay gap. Implicit or explicit discrimination will affect pay levels and growth; people may not be promoted; and family and other duties may interfere with career. The workplace is not the only place where inequities in pay can be addressed. But it is time for the presidential candidates to talk openly about the gap between men and women in the workforce, and to propose serious policy solutions.