Closing The Gap

8 steps economists say could help close the gender pay gap

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Economists estimate that the gender pay gap — the gap between the median salaries of all working men and women in the U.S. — is about 80 cents earned by women for every dollar earned by a man.

And this gap isn't changing very quickly. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), if the pay gap continues to narrow at the same pace it has over the past 50 years, women will not reach pay parity until 2059. For women of color this date is even further into the future: The IWPR estimates that black women will wait until 2119 for equal pay and Hispanic women will have to wait until 2224.

CNBC Make It spoke with eight economists about what steps leaders could take to shrink the gender pay gap, as well as what individuals can do to minimize its affect on their earnings.

Here's what they had to say:

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Sharing salary information

"You can definitely share pay information — that is actually protected by law. Many people don't think it is, but it actually is according to the Department of Labor. And so you can certainly share it with each other. One reason that people think more claims of unequal pay are coming to light is that since more [women] who are married to men are working, when they work in the same kinds of industries or occupations, they compare their paychecks and they're like, 'What? Really?'

"There's more information and all of these ways of sharing your salaries on the web are very useful. And when you're up for a raise, when you're being hired, you can consult those websites to see whether you're being offered something comparable for your area, for your job, for your size company."

- Heidi Hartmann, President, Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), economist in-residence, American University

Dividing labor at home

"Women, relative to men in couples with kids, often take a bit of a backseat so that their jobs are more able to be on-call at home and so that guys' jobs are more able to be on call in the office. That doesn't mean that they're working different number of hours, that doesn't mean that their skill level is different, it just means that two people who graduated from Harvard Law School, they both take jobs at big law firms in New York, they have kids, one of them has to slow down a bit. Or else why even have the kids?

"As long as the labor market says, 'You make partner at a big-time law-firm and you get super-duper earnings and if you can't do that, you fall down a tremendous amount,' then couples have a tremendous incentive to have almost an old-fashioned division. It's like a new fashion division of labor where one works for the big law firm and one works at the little law firm. They both have careers, and they're both parents, but one of them is the one who gets called when the kid vomited and one of them can't be called because he's taking the flight to Japan.

"Change has to come at home, and it has to be that you have to work it out with your spouse in terms of who's the one who is on-call at home and who's the one who's on-call in the office."

- Claudia Goldin, Henry Lee Professor of Economics, Harvard University

Stronger social insurance

"Paid family leaves from work; more public subsidies for care of children, people who are sick and disabled and the elderly; legislation to reduce penalties for part-time work; changes in the length of the school day and school vacations; reduced tuition and fees at public universities and Medicare for All.

"Sure, these policies would cost taxpayers money, but they would also reduce the out-of-pocket costs that most families must pay. Everyone benefits from social insurance, because everyone is at risk of needing assistance for themselves or a loved one at some point in their lives."

- Nancy Folbre, Professor Emerita of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Raising the minimum wage

"The unwillingness to raise the minimum wage is really hurting women, because they are disproportionately represented at that level."

- Isabel V. Sawhill, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, the Brookings Institution

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Structures to support care-giving

"Everything is a choice in life and some people make certain choices, like they make a choice with their partner to stay home and take care of a sick mother or take care of the kids. I don't want to downgrade that choice. What I think is that if society had different structures that supported this care function, you know, taking care of children, taking care of elderly people, they may be freer to make choices to stay in the labor force because there would be an alternative.

"What my data shows is that in the long term, people who maintain employment, and specifically who maintain working full time, full year, persistently, are more likely to have earnings gains than people who are full time, full year, not persistently working — sometimes they go back to part-time work and sometimes they even take a year off or two years off. In the 70's, 50% of women were spending four out of 15 years out of the labor force. That is a recipe for lower earnings when you're working. So persistent full-time work, education and training, picking the right skills that are in demand — that's the way to higher earnings."

- Stephen Rose, fellow, Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute

Knowing the law

"If you're a women in an occupation and you are getting less than the guy, indeed in the same workplace, you have every right and you ought to complain about it. We have laws about this and we've been enforcing those laws since the mid-60s, to some extent."

- Daniel S. Hamermesh, distinguished scholar, Barnard College | network director, the Institute for the Study of Labor

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Choosing your occupation carefully

"One of the things that the elephant in the room that we have to talk about is the fact that we still have women making personal decisions about pursuing degrees that by definition pay less. So once you are involved in a care-giving kind of field in which you're taking care of other individuals such as teaching, such as nursing, such as nurse practitioners or any type of care-giving field by definition, those professions seem to not be as valued in the economy and as such, those, those are paid less.

"So for example, over 90% of nurses are women. We have substantial amounts of teachers are still women. So those types of professions are still female-dominated. We still have occupational segregation, which yes, is a personal decision, but it's also driven by socioeconomic challenges and it is also driven by expectations about what roles women should play in society."

- Nicole Smith, Research Professor and Chief Economist, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

"In scientific and technical occupations it's more likely and it's possible to combine having a good job with having some flexibility in your work hours or lower work hours. That doesn't mean you're going to get the same annual pay, but it does mean your hourly pay, your hourly compensation will be closer to that of men, if that is possible."

- Gary Burtless, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, The Brookings Institution


"We've been trying to address this in many institutions, to have mentoring programs, through making sure that young women have access to STEM opportunities and STEM education to making sure that, you know, women realize that they are just as proficient, just as competent in, every type of field they pursue — that they can be president if they want to.

"The social barriers that prohibit us from pursuing certain types of occupations are still slowly but surely being removed. And we have to continue to teach our girls that you don't necessarily have to play with pink ribbons and you can play with the truck and you can be the engineer and you don't have to be the social worker. So part of this is breaking down those gender barriers that we put up for our children when they're born."

- Smith

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

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