The pay gap between men and women in the United States is realistically far wider than the most commonly used figures, according to new research showing women earning less than half of men's incomes.
The yawning gap reflects the reality that women step out of the paid labor force to care for families more often than men do, said the economic study released by the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research.
The commonly cited gender pay gap, calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau, showed women last year who worked full-time year-round earned 80 percent of what men earned.
The new research found women earned 49 cents for every man's dollar in the years spanning 2001 to 2015 by factoring in women who leave and return to the paid work force, co-author Stephen Rose said on Thursday.
"We think our number highlights the issue much more of the majority of women and how they have to move in and out of the labor force and work part time," Rose told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"There's a lot of women that aren't able to work full-time full-year, and there are consequences to this," he said.
More than 40 percent of today's women workers have taken at least one year off with no earnings, typically to care for children or aging or ailing family members, the study said.
By comparison, just 23 percent of men did the same.
"The issue that some people bring up is 'Well, that's their choice,' and on some levels that's quite true," Rose said. "But the system has been organized around 'Let's make women available for that.'"
The study points to the need for paid maternity and family leave and affordable child care, said Rose and others.
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"The reality is sometimes women are not working full-time or women's work hours are not equivalent to men's work hours and often it's because of work-family pressures that still disproportionately fall on women," said Vicki Shabo, a vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families, a Washington-based advocacy group.
"This underscores and creates red flashing lights around the fact that we need better policies in this country to reflect the fact that both women and men can be breadwinners and caregivers to their loved ones," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Congress outlawed pay discrimination based on gender in 1963, yet public debate over why wages still lag drastically for women has snowballed in recent years.
Globally, the World Economic Forum has reported an economic gap of 58 percent between the sexes for 2016 and forecast women would have to wait 217 years before they are paid equally at work.