Get Real! Is My Foreskin Normal?

Heather Corinna

Having a foreskin or not having one does not make anyone more or less of a man or a bad or better lover. Both of those things are a lot more complex than just what kind of penis you have, and have little to do with anyone's genitalia.

mr-nemesis asks:

am 16 years old: when erect only half of the tip of my penis shows. I
was just wondering if this is normal? I thought that when your penis is
erect that the entire tip is exposed, then when non-erect the foreskin
retracts to protect the tip? Am I right or wrong? When will my full tip
come out? Or do I have to pull my foreskin back during intercourse?

Heather replies:

penis — in its unaltered state with an intact foreskin — is pretty
clearly designed for sexual activity where it is inserted, and where it
can move around during sexual activities without a need for any special
assistance. Not only do you not have to do anything at all to your
foreskin at all during any kind of intercourse, it’s designed in such a
way to work optimally with that activity.

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While we need to be careful how we talk about genitals, sex and
design, since we can’t consult with the designer and so can only
theorize, we can safely say that even if someone chooses not to
reproduce, the penis clearly has a lot to do with reproduction, and the
way it is, foreskin and all, is conducive to that purpose through
vaginal intercourse without aid. Given the massive population of the
planet, and knowing the majority of men worldwide are not circumcised,
you can rest assured the uncircumcised penis works just fine in that
regard. While the practice of circumcision dates back further than
recorded history, in most of the world at any period in history it has
not been the norm: save for those of us of Jewish or some African
heritage, many of our oldest ancestors were not circumcised and their
penises did the job just fine, hands-free.

Let’s cover some anatomy first so that you have the basics to work
with. That should help you understand why you don’t have to worry about
how your foreskin is in regard to how far it sits back or with holding
unto it during sex.

Some of my answer will also address circumcised penises, too. I wish
I didn’t have to do that, because it feels a bit unfair to you, but
it’s the only way I know how to give this kind of information while
taking the feelings of anyone else reading into account. Conversations
about penises and circumcision can be really loaded, as you probably

If you look around the internet, you’ll find that it’s tough to find
information about the foreskin that isn’t highly political, and based
on a given stance about whether or not circumcision is an acceptable or
harmful practice or not. It’s understandable that people have such
strong feelings about the issue; however, it sure does make it tricky to
find the basics of the anatomy without a heavy dose of personal
opinion. The information I’m going to give here is as accurate as
possible, and as without bias as I can be. I don’t have a penis myself,
and I’m also not a parent who has had to make decisions about
circumcision. As well, I’ve had male sexual partners with both types of
penises I have enjoyed sex with, no one more than the other based
solely on if they had a foreskin or not. Hopefully, all of that helps
me to be as even-handed with these issues as I can. Bodily integrity
and autonomy (not having people besides ourselves make permanent
decisions about our bodies for us) is very important to me, but I also
do my best to take cultural differences into account, and approach
issues like this from the perspective that all of our bodies are okay
however they are, and that withholding factual information because it
might trigger feelings of insecurity or upset just isn’t sound.

So, I do want to make clear that while a penis with an intact
foreskin is clearly the penis as nature designed, and does have some
notable differences from penises where the foreskin has been removed,
that doesn’t mean something is wrong with guys who do NOT have
foreskins or that those guys can’t function, sexually or otherwise. A
substantial alteration is made with a circumcision, to be sure, and it
changes some things, but whatever kind of penis anyone reading this has
is an okay kind of penis to have. Having a foreskin or not having one
does not make anyone more or less of a man; or a bad or better lover.
Both of those things are a lot more complex than just what kind of
penis you have, and have little to do with anyone’s genitalia.

With that unpacked (as it were), let’s get to those basics.

The foreskin is a doubly-layered tube, like a sock if you yank it
off from the top and it folds down upon itself. It’s made of mucous
membrane, like we have on the female vulva, and on and inside of all of
our mouths or eyelids, and also of skin and it has a lot of sensory
nerve endings. It’s primary function, so far as we know, is to protect
the penis. It also has a female equivalent, which is the clitoral hood.
The foreskin is attached to the penis by the frenulum near the head of
the penis, and also at the base of the penis, with no attachments in
between those two points so that it can glide smoothly back and forth
over the shaft of the penis during any kind of sexual activity.
Pre-ejaculate and smegma — a combination of shed skin cells, oils, and
other moisture produced by the foreskin — both help with that gliding
motion and are distributed to the penis (and a partner’s body during
sex if no barrier is being used) through the foreskin’s movement.

The foreskin serves a few different purposes. Like I mentioned, the
first is protective: it protects the tissue of the head and shaft of
the penis and helps keep the penis sensitive and soft as men age. It
offers lubrication during masturbation or partnered sex, it can
increase sexual sensitivity for both partners, and it also can help
either partner in partnered sex to avoid pain during sexual
intercourse. Parts of the foreskin (like the ridged band, which
connects the inner and outer layers of the foreskin) are understood to
be some of the most sensitive parts of the penis entire. Like the
clitoris in women (which has more sensory nerve receptors than any
other part of the male or female genitals), the foreskin has many
sensory nerve receptors, and the way it moves up and down on the penis
also adds extra sensation to the shaft and head of the penis and may
add sensation for sexual partners, as well.

A note on the sensitivity issue for circumcised readers or those with circumcised partners:
None of this is to say circumcised men don’t have sensitivity of their
penises or are sexually dysfunctional. Based on what men self-report,
and what we know from sound studies, we know that circumcised men enjoy
sex just as much as those who are uncircumcised do, even though each of
those men, and/or their partners, may experience the sensations of
sexual activities differently. Certain operations — like the extra
lubricating functions a foreskin provides — are not present in men
without a foreskin, however, a function like that can be remedied with
the addition of a lubricant (which really is all the more important for
both partners when a guy is circumcised). If we know anything at all
about people, we know we are all incredibly adaptable, and that we all
also learn to function with what our own normal is. So, while again,
this can be a loaded subject, you’ve got whatever type of penis you’ve
got, and chances are good you’ll figure out how to do what feels good
with it in whatever your own unique way is.

Like the vaginal canal in women, the foreskin is very stretchy. It’s
built to be pretty elastic and move freely and comfortably without
external help. When you insert your penis into someone else’s body (or
move it with your own hands during masturbation) your foreskin will
naturally push back a bit, without you doing anything special to it.

When you masturbate or have partnered sex, whether it’s your hand or
someone else’s gripping your penis, or a mouth, rectum or vagina that
it’s inside, your foreskin will move on its own just fine. Again, it’s
meant to do so. You don’t need to pull it back or hold unto it in any
way, unless you find that it’s more comfortable for you or feels better
to do so when you guide your penis into someone else’s body. To put a
condom on, you will also want to move the foreskin gently back some
while you roll the condom on, so that it can move comfortably inside
the condom. If and when your foreskin moves inside a vagina, a mouth, a
rectum, a hand — whatever it is inside of — that’s when more of the
tip of your penis will be exposed. You just may not see that happen at
the time without having X-ray eyes.

What you’re describing about where your foreskin retracts to on your
penis is likely no problem. The foreskin is pretty long, always longer
than the shaft of the penis itself when it is not erect, as well as
sometimes/for some men when it’s only partially erect. When a penis
becomes erect, some foreskins will retract well over the head of the
penis, while others may still cover some of the head of the penis, like
yours does. Some won’t even show the head of the penis at all. The way
yours is may just be the way yours is, but also you may find this won’t
always be the case, especially if your penis has not yet finished
growing, which it probably has not yet given your age.

At 16, you are not likely finished with puberty. How much the
foreskin retracts is one part of a guy’s development during puberty,
which may not be fully complete until you are in your 20’s. Not only
may your penis also still grow larger over the next few years, your
level of sexual development can impact the size of your erections now,
as can your life experience. In other words, due to more hormonal and
growth changes, more exciting sources of sexual excitement, or both,
your erections may be longer or thicker in a few years than they are
now. By the time you’re 20 or so, if this is still how it is, then you
can be pretty sure this is the way you’re built. And if that’s the
case, it’s totally fine, and you can rest assured that other fully
grown men have that same variation.

Just so you know, the head of the penis itself is actually only
covered by a very thin mucous membrane — it’s thinner than it looks —
that ultimately should, from a physiological point of view, be
protected by the foreskin, even somewhat during sex. In other words, it
should always be protected from friction or abrasion in some way,
whether that’s a foreskin that covers it most of the time, or by the
head only being exposed during sexual activities where it’s
well-lubricated and in another warm, moist and soft environment. In
circumcised men, because it’s not covered by a foreskin, that membrane
gradually thickens (in a process called keratinization) and
becomes a bit tougher and less sensitive over time. That’s not an
illness or a health condition, just something that happens, but it
really isn’t how it’s supposed to be, ideally. Too, if a man’s foreskin
isn’t long enough, it can’t fully retract and move quite right, which
can cause a good deal of discomfort or pain, especially during sexual
activity. Too long or too loose (by your own estimation, since either
of those things are usually nonissues) you don’t need to worry about.
It’s too short or too tight that can be problematic.

One thing I just want to make sure to touch base on is if you are
having any pain or discomfort when you do manually move your foreskin
back over the head of your penis. If you’re not, it’s all good.

If you are having any pain, it’s a good idea to check in with
your healthcare provider. Some men have a condition called phimosis,
where the foreskin is too tight to move as it’s supposed to. Others (or
those with phimosis) may have developed some scar tissue that makes it
tough for the foreskin to move as it’s supposed to, and others still
have have an overaccumulation of smegma or an infection of some kind
causing problems with foreskin mobility. Should you have pain, you do
want to get checked out to find out why so that you can be treated or
find out what to do to self-treat (like gradually moving the foreskin
back yourself a little bit each day). All of these issues are usually
treatable, and treatable without a circumcision. If it turns
out you do have any of these issues, and a doctor leaps right to the
idea you need to be circumcised, see a different doctor.

Even if you don’t have any pain, if what I’ve said here still hasn’t
left you feeling satisfied, or you’re concerned something isn’t quite
right, you might be helped by having a visit with your doctor.
Sometimes having a healthcare professional — who sees so many bodies
in their work, it’s dizzying, so they tend to know more about the
diversity of the human body than the rest of us — take a look and talk
to us can be quite a comfort if we’re worried about things like this.
Your general doctor can also be a great resource for you if you have
other questions about your genitals or your sexual development.

Here are a couple more links that might help:

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.