Will Women Ever Achieve Pay Equity? It Is Possible

By Elizabeth Langley

Libraries have been struggling to hire and hold onto talented employees. Why? I believe it is primarily because of the low wages paid to library workers. Librarianship is predominantly female, and the gender biases embedded in early wage-setting set the stage for today’s market rates. Consequently, our salaries are often unjustifiably low. In 2022, the median annual pay for professionals with a master’s degree was $86,372, but librarians took home an average of just $61,660.

In Pathways to Equity (2016), the Institute for Women’s Policy Research urged women in lower-paid female-dominated middle-skill jobs to move into male-dominated middle-skill jobs. Rather than investing in a master’s degree to reach a librarian level, they suggest library assistants move into a Computer User Support role in IT – a higher-paid position – since many of their tasks are similar. 

Low pay for female workers extends beyond the library profession. March 12, 2024, is Equal Pay Day, which symbolizes how far into the current year women must work, on average, to earn what a man earned in the previous year. According to the U. S. Department of Labor, “Women who work full-time, year-round are paid an average of 83.7 percent as much as men. The gaps are even larger for many women of color and women with disabilities.” This amounts to an average of $530,000 in lost earnings over the course of a woman’s career. The gap declined by just two percent in the last two decades. It’ll take another 100+ years to close the gap if we let the market run its course. 

Women are often blamed for the gender pay gap. They’re told they don’t negotiate effectively. They take time to have kids. And they choose low-paying occupations.

The truth is half of the gap is due to occupational segregation – the disproportionate representation of one group in a particular job. Women are more likely to work with other women than they are to work with men of their own race or ethnicity. Jobs held mainly by women and minorities pay less “in part because they are held by women and minorities,” according to the EEOC’s 1981 Women, Work and Wages report. Positions with more women and minorities had been categorized into lower pay grades. Only a very small portion of wage disparities were accounted for by differences in education, work experience or productivity. 

Researchers have since concluded that occupational segregation and the devaluation of women’s work are significant contributors to the gender pay gap. Paula England’s research in the 1990s found that higher proportions of females in an occupation lowers the pay, regardless of skill level, job amenities, or unpleasant working conditions. If a job required nurturant social skills ─dealing with people, communication, face-to-face service work─ it carried a net wage penalty. She saw this as evidence of wage discrimination and advised against using “the market” to set pay rates.

What about discrimination laws? Can’t they protect library workers? 

Unfortunately, when the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, it included the term equal instead of comparable, the word used in all previous bills. This resulted in the courts adopting a very literal interpretation of the law. The problem was that women had only been allowed into certain positions at that time. And while their labor might be equally demanding and vital to the employer, it was inherently different than men’s labor, and therefore, unequal.  Employers have thus been able to use the market excuse to justify different rates of pay for different jobs.

In response, the idea of comparable worth gained ground in the 1970s and 1980s as women’s groups and unions tried to revive women’s right to equitable pay. Critics, however, argued that supply and demand should dictate wages in a fair market. Clarence Thomas, who was chairman of the EEOC in 1985, rejected a Federal expansion of Title VII Amendment of the Civil Rights Act, which would have given greater weight to comparable worth arguments in federal courts. The EEOC had a backlog of 266 cases when this decision was made, a major setback that deterred women from seeking help through litigation. 

Nonetheless, there was a flurry of news articles in 1985 for and against comparable worth strategies, with many localities tackling the problem through state and local government legislation and negotiation with unions. As an example, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees successfully negotiated with the City of Los Angeles to bring the wages of clerks and librarians up to the level of maintenance workers and gardeners.

Progress towards diminishing pay gaps can only occur when comparisons are made across departments and occupational boundaries. One strategy employers can take to reduce biases in pay-setting is by measuring the value of dissimilar jobs through a job evaluation study, which uses a point-based rating system based on skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions. Back in 1994, Hartmann and Aaronson examined 20 states that examined pay rates in their state civil services. Fourteen states successfully implemented wage adjustments without negative consequences. They found their wage gaps declined by 25-33 percent. 

Conducting a pay equity audit is another process that employers can do on their own or with a consultant to proactively identify pay disparities in their workforces. Steps to reduce pay gaps involve analyzing data, setting aside funding for adjustments, and then creating new classification and pay structures. 

With the rise of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) labor practices, these ideas are making a comeback. Many U.S. municipalities are joining in the efforts. The City of Austin (Texas) and the City of Portland (Oregon) have started conducting regular pay equity audits. In Chicago, former Mayor Lightfoot ordered a bi-annual gender and racial pay equity audit of the city’s workforce while calling on partners in the private sector to join them. Boston is asking local employers to sign a pledge committing to sharing pay data and fixing inequities.

It’s been almost 50 years since Sue Galloway and Alyce Archuleta wrote “Sex and Salary” in American Libraries, stating, “Workers in sex-segregated institutions such as libraries are entitled to equal pay. Attainment of that goal should be high priority in the profession.” Their call for action still rings true today. If libraries don’t modernize pay practices, we won’t be able to fill vacancies or recruit a new generation of diverse, creative, enthusiastic young people to this work. We need to act before we lose more library workers to other fields. 

The good news is this problem is solvable. We have the data. We have the tools. Since libraries are often part of city, county and state entities and employ higher proportions of women, we are uniquely positioned to highlight discriminatory pay embedded in outdated job classification structures. We can also showcase solutions that have been proven effective.

So how do we put pressure on the powers that be? 

As knowledge seekers and distributors, librarians can facilitate community conversations around labor policies and the gender pay gap. We can organize with coworkers and talk to union representatives. We can write to our representatives and lobby for state laws that incorporate comparable worth. We can also ask our organization’s leaders to conduct a pay equity audit and consider using job evaluation metrics to create more equitable pay ranges across departments. We have the power to build a path towards pay equity.


About the author: Elizabeth Langley is the Managing Librarian at the Sahuarita Library, Pima County Public library. Elizabeth resides in Tucson, Arizona and has been a public librarian for over 18 years. She uses research and data to advocate for pay equity in librarianship locally and nationally.



England, Paula, “The Gendered Valuation of Occupations and Skill,” Social Forces, 1994.

Galloway, Sue and Alyce Archuleta, “Sex and Salary,” American Libraries, 1978.

Gould, Elise, Jessica Schieder, and Kathleen Geier, “What is the gender pay gap and is it real?,” Economic Policy Institute, October 20, 2016, https://www.epi.org/publication/what-is-the-gender-pay-gap-and-is-it-real/

Hegewisch, Ariane, “Pathways to Equity: Narrowing the Wage Gap by Improving Women’s Access to Good Middle-Skill Jobs,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2016.

Hegewisch, Ariane and Heidi Hartmann, “Occupational Segregation and the Gender Wage Gap: A Job Half Done,” January 2014, https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/C419.pdf 

Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “The Gender Wage Gap by Occupation 2018 and by Race and Ethnicity,” April 2019, https://iwpr.org/the-gender-wage-gap-by-occupation-2018/

Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Narrow the Gender Pay Gap, Reduce Poverty for Families: the Economic Impact of Equal Pay by State,” May 2021, https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Economic-Impact-of-Equal-Pay-by-State_FINAL.pdf

Kochhar, Rakesh, “The Enduring Grip of the Gender Pay Gap,” Pew Research Center, March 1, 2023, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2023/03/01/the-enduring-grip-of-the-gender-pay-gap/

National Research Council, Women, Work, and Wages: Equal Pay for Jobs of Equal Value. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1981.

The New York Times, “‘Comparable Worth’ at Work in Los Angeles, May 12, 1985.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/librarians.htm and https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2023/data-on-display/education-pays.htm