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  • Thalia Trinidad

Want to close the gender wage gap? Elect more women to state legislatures.

Women have been fighting for equal pay since entering the workforce en masse during WWII. One of the most notable pieces of legislation passed on the issue of equal pay was the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibited wage discrimination on account of sex. Two decades prior, in 1944, Congresswoman Winifred C. Stanley proposed a similar bill: the nondiscrimination against working women bill (HR 5056). While Rep. Stanley’s bill did not pass, her work laid the groundwork for the Equal Pay Act and was an important moment in the history of equal pay for women. [1]

When Rep. Stanley served in Congress, she was one of only nine women. [2] Today, women account for 27% of members of Congress, and they remain far from achieving proportional representation. [3] In state legislatures, women’s representation varies dramatically from over 60% in Nevada to barely 12% in West Virginia, with the national average being 31%. The number of women in an elected body has a profound effect on legislation that is passed, especially when it comes to issues like equal pay.

While there has been progress in addressing the gender wage gap in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap, especially for women in low wage jobs and women of color. Critical policy decisions on issues such as wage equity are made in state legislatures, yet in 40 states, women hold less than 40% of the seats and women’s voices too often are unheard in these policy debates.

Bridging the gender pay gap requires state legislatures to be more representative of the populations they serve. That’s why at The Ascend Fund, our goal is 50% representation for women in all 50 states by 2050 because when women lead, our nation is transformed.

Understanding the pay gap through the lens of Equal Pay Day

This year, Equal Pay Day occurred on March 15th, the earliest it’s ever been since the day was established in 1996. Each year, Equal Pay Day is observed at the point in the year at which women – on average – must work to match what men have earned by the end of the previous year.

But this average doesn’t tell the whole story. The pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality: Women lost more jobs and left the workforce at higher rates than men, and their return to the labor force has lagged significantly behind men [4]. In pink-collar fields — a title that points to the overrepresentation of women in care-oriented professions —the pay gap deepened. Furthermore, in the remote-learning era, many mothers had to choose between employment and caring for their children. [5]

While women overall are paid 83 cents for every dollar paid to white men, the wage gap is even wider for women of color: [6]

  • Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Women’s Equal Pay Day is May 3. Asian American and Pacific Islander women are paid 75 cents for every dollar paid to white men.

  • Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is September 21. Black women are paid 58 cents for every dollar paid to white men.

  • Native Women’s Equal Pay Day is November 30. Native women are paid 50 cents for every dollar paid to white men.

  • Latina’s Equal Pay Day is December 8. Latinas are paid 49 cents for every dollar paid to white men.

Bill closing gender wage gap passed by women-majority legislature in Nevada

Nevada became the first and only U.S. state to achieve gender parity in its legislative body in 2019. [7] Women bring valuable experience to the workforce and the policy arena, often leading and legislating differently from men based on their lived experience. Issues that affect women and their families become policy priorities, for example, the issue of wage history bans (one of many types of legislation that leads to equal pay) has historically affected women and workers of color the most. [8] Prior to the women majority, previous attempts at passing an equal pay bill in the state had failed because “male lawmakers questioned whether gender discrimination was, in fact, a problem requiring legislative action.” [9]

In 2021, Nevada was experiencing an all-time-high unemployment rate of 14.8% driven by the pandemic. Women in the workforce suffered the most, accounting for 54% of all job losses. [10] Women were already overrepresented in the low-wage workforce in Nevada before the pandemic and the wage gap widened further during the pandemic, particularly for pink collar workers.

Nevada legislators responded to these losses by passing Senate Bill 293, the Pay Equity Law. [11] The new law bans employers from using past wage or salary history to calculate a new employee’s compensation and requires documentation for pay differences between men and women in comparable roles. Using salary history to determine a new employee’s pay rate has a deep history of propagating inequality, “[barring] qualified candidates from job opportunities and systematically [relegating] women and workers of color—particularly women of color—to lower pay that may have been set lower because of discrimination.” [12]

Equal pay is just one of the many issues that women legislators have successfully led on in Nevada. Since gaining a majority, they’ve passed legislation to mandate paid time off, expand birth control access, and fortify legal protections for sexual violence.

Bad “pay equity bill” cannot be stopped by women who are a super-minority in Mississippi’s legislature

Mississippi had the dubious distinction of being the last state in the nation to not have an equal pay law. In March, the Mississippi legislature passed House Bill 770 - the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act – and in April, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed the bill into law. Although this should be a win, the final bill contains substantial loopholes and doesn’t protect workers from factors that contribute to the wage gap, like using salary history to determine wages.

Although the gender pay disparity exists nationally, the problem is compounded in Mississippi, where women make 27% less than men, a far larger gap than the national average. [13] In addition, women in the Mississippi legislature are a super-minority, holding just 16% of state legislative seats. This is well below the national average of 31%—though typical of southern states where women are significantly underrepresented in political bodies. [14]

In Mississippi, BIPOC residents are also severely underrepresented: while over 56% of Mississippi’s population is white, 71% of state legislators are white, leaving a nearly 15% gap in BIPOC representation.[15] Moreso, in Mississippi, Black women make only $0.56 cents for every dollar a white man makes. This adds up to a loss of wages totaling $21,000 per year. Over the course of a 40-year career, Black women in Mississippi lose between $849,000 and over $1 million. [16] This is why gender and racial parity in legislative bodies are key to passing quality equal pay legislation in Mississippi, informed by the lived experiences of diverse citizens.

The Ascend Fund’s partner, Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable (MS-BWR), built a bipartisan coalition for state-level wage protections, which, if executed, would center Black women and other underrepresented groups in state legislation. In an interview with PBS, Cassandra Welchin, Executive Director of MS-BWR emphasized that “Black, white, Latina, [and] Indigenous women are the backbone, the economic drivers here in the state of Mississippi. But yet, we're not making the wages that we need to, and Black and brown women are really at the center of that.” [17] MS-BWR describes the new law as

"... everything but an equal pay law and [it] perpetuates gender discrimination and widens the wage gap. The women of Mississippi deserve more than a symbolic, do-nothing law – they need meaningful equal pay protections.” [18]


As Nevada and Mississippi illustrate, the number of women in an elected body has a profound effect on legislation that is passed, particularly when it comes to issues like equal pay. The Ascend Fund is working to accelerate the pace of change and to achieve gender parity in all 50 states by 2050 because political representation is critical to ensuring all women’s economic well-being. We encourage you to join our efforts to increase the number of women in state legislatures, learn more about equal pay laws in your state, and support organizations like Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable

[5]U.S. Department of Labor: Bearing the Cost – How Overrepresentation in Undervalued Jobs Disadvantaged Women During the Pandemic [6] American Association of University Women – Equal Pay Day Calendar [7] The 19th - Women outnumber men in the Nevada Legislature. What difference does it make? [8] CAP – Why Salary History Bans Matter To Securing Equal Pay [9] Los Angeles Times – In Nevada, women take charge. You can tell the difference. [10] Congressional Research Service - Unemployment Rates During the COVID-19 Pandemic [11] Nevada Legislature - SB293 [12] CAP – Why Salary History Bans Matter to Securing Equal Pay [13] Clarion Ledger – Mississippi set to become final state with equal pay law [14] Institute for Women’s Policy Research – Status of Women in the South [15] Politico – Why state legislators are still very white and very male and U.S. Census Bureau – Mississippi QuickFacts 2021 [16] CNBC – Black women make nearly $1 million less than white men during their careers [17] PBS – Black women in Mississippi demand state-level pay protections [18] Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable – Press Release – Equal Pay 03/30/22


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