Women Getting Paid the Same as Men: Hurdles, History, and How to Move Forward

Andrew Grissom reviews “Women Money Power” by Josie Cox in the latest installment of the Catalyst book review series.

For every step forward in the path toward gender equity—women leading Fortune 500 companies and holding other key positions in the US government—women have faced obstacles. From the gender pay gap to the glass cliff phenomenon, old ideas and assumptions about women’s roles persist and are embedded in the systems in which we design work.

But why does progress continually stall?

In a sweeping epic covering more than a century, Women Money Power: The Rise and Fall of Economic Equality by Josie Cox, financial journalist and founding editor of The Persistent, meticulously details the long, winding road of American women’s fight for economic freedom. This work is recommended reading for HR leaders, DEI practitioners, and anyone seeking to better understand the antecedents of the gender pay gap in the United States.

Cox frames the odyssey through vignettes and vibrant portraits of women changemakers, from household names like equal pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter to influential figures who never quite got their due, such as lawyer and activist Pauli Murray. Readers also meet lesser-known women who broke from the status quo, including Mae Burkett Krier, who joined the millions of “Rosie the Riveter” women entering the labor force to support the US economy during World War II.

Their stories shine a light on the courage, grit, and persistence required to stand up to the status quo. But for every incredible achievement, Cox notes, a major setback was not far behind.

Companies quickly replaced the Rosies who developed extensive skillsets and knowledge during their World War II employment with men, and expected women to quietly resume their roles in the home.

The development and approval of the contraceptive Enovid (Cox describes in riveting detail the story of billionaire widow Katharine Dexter McCormick’s resolve to advance women’s reproductive rights) radically transformed women’s educational and professional pursuits by giving them the ability to delay parenthood.

Second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s saw Betty Friedan’s disruptive The Feminine Mystique, passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and pro-choice activism, culminating in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. All this progress was eventually met with crushing defeat when the Equal Rights Act failed to secure the state ratifications necessary to become enshrined in the US Constitution.

In page-turning prose, Cox unpacks systemic failures, cultural norms, and assumptions that repeatedly left women sidelined, despite their achievements.

Indeed, by the 1980s and 1990s, women’s workforce participation had increased to the point that the notion of women “having it all”—a successful career, family, and marriage—was a prominent cultural talking point. But something was missing.

Throughout these years of disruption, when women were breaking barriers and building careers and wealth, nothing was changing at all for men. Society still expected mento to be “providers,” work long hours, and leave unpaid work, such as household chores and childcare, to women. Men didn’t have a stake in the changing world around them, perceiving gender equity as a zero-sum game that only put them at a disadvantage.

This misalignment reverberates today. Women still perform the overwhelming bulk of unpaid labor such as childcare and household chores. Catalyst research has found that the lack of childcare options severely disrupts working mothers’ career ambitions. Two thirds (67%) of women believe childcare responsibilities could negatively affect their careers.

To maximize earnings and manage both paid and unpaid labor, heterosexual couples often forgo a sense of equity, with one partner (usually the woman) taking a lower-paid, more flexible job, and the other partner (often the man) choosing a “greedy,” high-earning and prestigious job—further entrenching gender inequities.

The United States still lacks a national paid parental leave law and childcare infrastructure, leaving women to pick up the slack and provide this social safety net. In doing so, we deprive them of the freedom to choose and optimize their time, a critical component of economic mobility.

In addition to the famous “glass ceiling” metaphor, Cox suggests we examine the history of women’s economic mobility through “glass walls.” With each step towards progress, a glass wall blocks our path toward equality. Every crisis—war, recessions, pandemics—invites old assumptions about gender roles to resurface and questions women’s credibility and authority to make economic decisions.

Can we stop the cycle and deliver a more equitable world?

Start by challenging sexist stereotypes and assumptions, yet seek common ground to shift mindsets and behaviors.
Ensure children do not adopt detrimental stereotypes or presumptions related to traits, aspirations, or conduct typically associated with any specific gender.
Pay tribute to women pioneers by continuing to chip away at each glass wall.

With generative AI and other labor market disruptions on the horizon, it’s time to confront these persisting systemic inequities head-on. We can invite men, through programs like MARC by Catalyst, to interrogate of harmful gender stereotypes that leave women underpaid and underutilized for their potential. Organizations should adopt pay transparency practices, which are critical for reducing wage gaps and are already rapidly becoming the norm in many countries.

Let’s name the systems that contribute to the pay gap and do the long-overdue work to render it part of our past rather than our future.


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Andrew Grissom joined Catalyst in 2016 as an associate. As Director of Community Growth, Andrew creates and oversees the implementation of initiatives and programs that encourage community involvement, participation, and dialogue. Andrew leads research and community engagement activities for the Catalyst CEO Champions For Change initiative and is as a…

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