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Why a new report suggests the gender wage gap is wider than you thought

"The long-term gender earnings gap has narrowed since 1968, but it has by no means disappeared," the study's authors wrote.

The gender pay gap has closed through both rising female wages and decreasing male wages.
The gender pay gap has closed through both rising female wages and decreasing male wages.Read moreiStock

When Gov. Wolf signed an executive order aimed at improving Pennsylvania's gender wage gap in June, he held up a plastic bag with 79 cents in it to visualize how much women make on average for every dollar earned by a man.

Apparently, the governor could have taken 30 cents out of that bag and it might have been more accurate.

A new study out of a D.C.-based think tank suggests the national gender wage gap is far greater than the figures often bandied about by policymakers and women's advocates. When studied over time, women actually make about 49 cents for every dollar a man does.

The study, released this week by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), takes a wider look at the issue than do researchers who calculate the wage gap by comparing annual salary or hourly wages. Instead, the researchers examined wages in three 15-year periods since 1968 as an aggregate, rather than comparing earnings for full-time workers in a single year. That means the long-term study accounted for workers who dropped out of the labor force temporarily, showing that women were far more likely to take time off for child or family care, and their earnings losses for that time were greater than men's.

The report, titled "Still a Man's Labor Market," was based on 50 years' worth of data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics of the University of Michigan, a nationally representative survey of 18,000 people. The authors found that while there's been considerable progress over time, the narrowing of the gender wage gap has slowed in the last 15 years. It also remains higher for women of color.

Between 1968 and 1982, women made about 19 cents to the dollar compared with men, according to the report. During that time, more than 70 percent of women went at least one year without earnings. Go to the period between 2001 and 2015 and just 43 percent of women took off at least one year. While the percentage of women who took off a year or more has dropped, it still remains nearly twice the rate of men. And even when women didn't take off a single year in the most recent 15-year period, they still earned just 67 percent of what men did in the same time, the researchers found.

"The long-term gender earnings gap has narrowed since 1968, but it has by no means disappeared," the study's authors wrote. "These results indicate that there is still more to do if women are to have equal pay with men over the course of their working lives."

READ MORE: Six women recall when they found out they were getting paid less than their male coworkers

Report coauthors Heidi Hartmann, the IWPR founder, and Stephen J. Rose, a fellow at the Urban Institute, argued that improving access to paid parental leave for both men and women and affordable child care could significantly improve women's labor force participation and cut into the long-term wage gap.

Hartmann and Rose found the earnings "penalty" for taking time off from work is steep, and increasing. Between 1968 and 1982, a woman who took off just one year made, on average, 12 percent less than a woman who worked all 15 years straight through. In the most recent data, a woman who took off one year made, on average, 39 percent less.

Amal Bass, a staff attorney at the Philadelphia-based Women's Law Project, said legislative fixes beyond equal pay legislation are vital. She said progress has been made in Philadelphia, which has wage equity and paid sick leave ordinances on the books.

Bass said this week's report shows the commonly cited 80-cents-to-the-dollar figure fails to account for the experiences of many workers.

"While that says something, it's not the full picture," she said. "It's never been the full picture. We really need a much more comprehensive approach to how we talk about, legislate, and solve the problems that women have in the workplace."

Earlier this year, New Jersey Gov. Murphy signed what's been called the nation's strongest equal pay legislation. The law allows victims of wage discrimination to recoup losses for up to six years, four more than they could previously, and requires that courts award triple damages for violations of the law.

In June, Wolf signed an executive order prohibiting state agencies from asking some workers about their pay history, a move supporters say benefits women and minorities whose lower pay can compound over time if wages at a new job are set based on their previous pay.

Bass said other legislative fixes that could cut into the wage gap include "pregnancy accommodation" bills that would require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers, such as access to bathroom breaks or a chair. Hartmann and Rose also recommended strengthening enforcement of equal employment opportunity and improving Title IX education to allow and encourage women to occupy higher-paying jobs.

Among the 100 largest public companies in the Philadelphia area, women made up just 10 percent of the top earners in 2017, a figure that grew just 1 percent in the last eight years, according to an annual report released by the Forum of Executive Women in October. Sixty percent of those companies reported no female top earners.