On June 10, 1963 President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, a landmark piece of legislation aimed at leveling the pay gap between genders in American workplaces. It was hailed by many as an important precedent, but more than 50 years later, women still earn less than men, averaging just 81 cents for every dollar a man is paid, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.
Women have made major strides when it comes to entering the workforce and obtaining college degrees, but as more women enter professional fields, the gender-based income gap appears to be widening, especially in fields requiring advanced degrees.
According to a new report “Trends in the Earnings of Male and Female Health Care Professionals in the United States, 1987 to 2010” published in the September edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, female doctors earn, on average, over $56,000 less than their male counterparts each year — and the gender pay gap only appears to be widening in this field.
By examining historical data, researchers found that some of the gaps in the 1990s were attributable to gender differences in the “specialty choice and hours worked,” meaning that some women either worked fewer hours or pursued fields of medicine that paid less than others.
Even after making the necessary adjustments for field of medicine, practice type, and hours worked, the data indicate that female physicians still earn considerably less than their male counterparts.
The gap has only widened since the late 1980s, when male physicians earned an average of $33,840 more in yearly salary than their female counterparts — a difference of about 20 percent. By the late 2000s, this gap had increased to 25.3 percent, or $56,019 per year. The same study claims that the same trend holds true for dentists and physician’s assistants.
Over the course of a career, this can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars lost due to differences in gender. Citing a study by the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, MSN Money reports that female doctors make $434,000 less than men on average over the course of their careers.
What are the reasons for this gap? Speaking to NPR news, Joan Williams, professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law says that in any field, pregnancy and motherhood remain the major barriers preventing many women from obtaining pay equity in their fields.
“Studies have shown for over a decade that what is really killing women economically is motherhood,” Williams said. This refers to discrimination against hiring or promoting mothers based on the belief that she will be less committed to her job.
The U.S. does not have any national laws mandating paid maternity leave, but the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 mandates up to 12 weeks of potentially unpaid job-protected leave, including parental leave.
In order to be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must have been at her job for at least 12 months, worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months and worked at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees.
Meanwhile, the majority of the countries in the world have some form of unconditional paid paternity leave. According to a McGill University study, Germany, France and New Zealand are among 98 nations requiring that mothers be given at least 14 weeks paid leave after the birth of a child.
In an attempt to close the pay gap, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced legislation in January that would require employers to prove that differences in pay among workers are unrelated to gender or any other qualities unrelated to their employment.
This article originally was published Sept. 7, 2013.