Women’s pay was starting to catch up. Now progress has stopped.

The gender pay gap has hit a glass ceiling of its own.

The long-standing pay disparity between the genders has barely improved in the past 20 years, a new analysis from Pew Research shows, raising difficult questions about why women’s recent gains in higher education and workplace opportunities haven’t put them on more equal financial footing.

In 2022, women made 82 cents at the median for every dollar made by men, Pew found, compared with 80 cents in 2002.

Compared with the strides made in the 1980s and ‘90s - when the pay gap narrowed by 15 cents - it appears progress has stalled, according to academics who have spent their careers studying the problem.

“There was so much to gain before because women were so far behind, and now we’re again confronting structural problems,” said Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University. “We’re left with glass ceilings and concrete ceilings particularly for Latino and Black women, and there is a pervasive undervaluing of women’s work.”

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the narrowing pay gap was largely due to increases in women’s labor force participation, said Rakesh Kochhar, a senior researcher at Pew and one of the report’s authors. Women made inroads in high-paying, traditionally male-dominated professions, he said, and gained a greater attachment to the workplace and their pay improved as a result.

Since then, women have made huge strides in higher education. About 48% of employed women now hold at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a Pew analysis of census data, compared with just 41% of men. At the turn of the century, men and women were roughly equal in that regard. But the financial returns from being better educated have diminished, Kochhar said, at least as far as the pay gap is concerned.


The largest driver of the pay gap remains gender-based segregation, said Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of anthropology at Tel Aviv University.

Women in traditionally male-dominated industries - such as Big Tech, manufacturing and construction - tend to perform different jobs than men, Kalev said. In many cases, women in those sectors can only achieve management positions when men move from those roles into even more senior posts with higher compensation, she said.

“Even when numbers show presumed entrance to better occupations, women are relegated to the least valued jobs and tasks,” Kalev wrote in an email. “Even in high tech you will find more women (with education in computer science) in admin, or when in teams, they will do the documentation. This has implications for promotions and pay.”

Women continue to face long-existing barriers in the workplace, such as salary losses that come with motherhood, assumed caregiving responsibilities and historical attitudes toward women in leadership.

“We’re going out and trying to fix the cars rather than fix the roads, or other policies that are going to get the traffic moving,” Harvard University economics professor Claudia Goldin said.

Pew’s research has shown the gender pay gap to be much smaller for younger women. It widens when family responsibilities come into play.

Mothers aged 25 to 34 earned 85% as much as fathers the same age in 2022, Pew found. Women in the same age group without children earned 97 cents on the man’s dollar.

Meanwhile, fathers were compensated more than men without children, earning what researchers call a “fatherhood premium.” Among men between the ages of 35 to 44, and 45 to 54, fathers made 16% more than non-fathers.

“When a man chooses to take time for their child, it’s seen as almost golden and it’s rewarded,” said Christian Nunes, president of the National Organization for Women. “A mother has to sacrifice and choose [between work and family]. A father is rewarded for doing it.”

It doesn’t help that employers have also grown “time greedy,” Kalev said. As employers offer more flexible work arrangements, including teleworking, many also expect workers to be available around-the-clock. The 2020 recession was in many ways a “she-cession,” said Kochhar, as women with children saw increasing strains on their ability to balance work with family.

Women and people of color pay a higher price because they are outsiders trying to access higher paying jobs or more senior roles, Kalev said, and thus face more obligations at work.

Pew found that among women aged 25 to 54, motherhood appears to wipe out wage gains that could have been attributed to educational advancement. Women with a bachelor’s degree and a child younger than 18 years old were paid roughly the same amount in 2022 as non-mothers with only a high school diploma, Pew found.

The gender pay gap also varies widely by race, according to the research. Asian women were the most competitive with men overall in 2022, making 93 cents on the male dollar. White women made 83% as much as men.

Black women made only 70% as much as men, and Hispanic women made only 65% as much, and those wage gains took far longer to accumulate than gains of White and Asian women. The racial divides among the pay gap, Nunes said, are further slowing progress.

“What you’re seeing,” Nunes said, “is that systematic racism also has a huge influence on the discriminatory practices of why people are paid less.”