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NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Working to eliminate the persistently stagnant gender wage gap in the United States – American women working full-time have earned, on average, 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts for the last decade – is a challenge complicated by an overall lack of awareness that any gap exists in the workplace.

“Almost uniformly people find out by accident that they are being paid less than co-workers,” said Fatima Goss Graves, the vice president for education and employment at the Washington, D.C.-based National Women's Law Center. “They find out over drinks, over coffee, because someone accidentally says something. In the case of Lilly Ledbetter, someone left her an anonymous note.”


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The short- and long-term costs of the difference in pay between women and men in the United States – a trend that fluctuates based on ethnicity, race, geographic location, profession and age, but persistently points in the favor of men – are considerable.

The gap in earnings for the average full-time American woman results in a loss of $11,084 per year in median earnings, according to the National Women's Law Center, which released its compiled findings ahead of Equal Pay Day on April 9. Over a 40-year-period, as the gender wage gap widens over a course of a woman's career, this amount totals a cumulative $443,360.

The losses continue to follow women past their careers, as the average Social Security benefit for women over the age of 65 was about $12,700 per year, compared to $16,700 for men in 2011.

And the losses are felt more acutely for African-American and Hispanic women – who make 64 cents and 55 cents for every dollar to their white, male counterpart, respectively – as well as for lesbians and for single women without children.

Upfront gender discrimination – women may be offered less money upfront, and fail to receive as many promotions, or as much money as their male colleagues when it comes time for a promotion – partially accounts for these gaps. But the problem, and its solutions, have other complex roots.

Women remain concentrated in occupations – like in education and in healthcare – that have fairly low earnings, says Claudia Williams, a research analyst at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

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Men also tend to negotiate more frequently for a higher salary when they are initially hired, says Williams, while women are more likely to accept the initial offer they receive. Another trend is overtime work opportunities sometimes pass over women and are given instead to men.

“There is the conception that men are the breadwinners and women are just the supplemental income for the household, or maybe the manager thinks the woman cannot do the overtime work because she has to take care of her children or something like that,” Williams said.

Yet as Goss Graves says, studies have shown that women who do ask for higher salaries are more likely to be penalized, or viewed as aggressive and treated negatively. Men are also more likely to receive higher salaries than women even when they do not ask for them, she says.

The rise of programs and work-shops to help women become strong salary negotiators will not alone close the gender wage gap, says Goss Graves.

She points to a few state policies that encourage transparency, mandating employers cannot penalize employees from talking about their wages.

“That is important, because as long as one worker does not have the ability to find out what their rate is, or if there is a disparity at all, they are not going to be able to advocate for themselves, and could work for years receiving less,” Goss Graves said.

In the private sector, close to one-quarter of workers have reported that wage and salary discussions are formally prohibited, while an additional 38% say that this type of discussion is banned.

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In Washington D.C., has the lowest gender pay inequity nationwide – women on average there earn 90.4 cents per every dollar that her male counterpart takes in. Goss Graves attributes that difference, compared to Wyoming's gap of a woman's 66.6 cents to a man's dollar, to the culture of transparency in D.C. and the oversight of of the federal government.

The Equal Pay Act, passed in 1963, is not enough, says Goss Graves. Since the Equal Pay Act, the gender wage gap has closed considerably: in 1979, full-time women earned, on average, 62 percent of what men earned, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One basic thing to ensure that this rate continues to drop and falls out of the present 77-cent-per-dollar threshold is mandating companies to have a business reason to pay unequal wages, Goss Graves says. Williams also suggest a federal law that could ensure people know their co-workers' salaries. She recommends women, prior to taking a position or when interviewing, conduct online research to gauge how much someone in the position they are vying for is already receiving at the company.