It’s no secret that as a gender, women typically earn far less than their male counterparts in the same role. In recent history, although there has been a lot of progress in this area, women still continue to earn significantly less. Not only does this affect women in their current job, but it can also have a ripple effect on all of their jobs to come as well as their retirement income and savings. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in 2017 women who work full-time made only $.85 per every dollar a man made. This is a 20% wage gap.

Here’s a rundown of how this cycle starts, what it means for women and how they can enact change in their own lives.

How the cycle starts

Sadly, the gender pay gap starts right out of the gate when women leave college or high school. Often, despite having the same education, job history and experience as any other 18-22-year old male, women are just flat out paid less for the exact same job. From here, it can be almost impossible to move the gap closer. Job after job, you’re typically asked your salary requirements or what you made at your previous employer (though some states, like California, are prohibiting prospective employers from asking applicants about salary history). If you were underpaid before, your new company is going to continue to underpay you because you likely asked for less than they were willing to pay. They may not intentionally be trying to pay you less because you’re a woman but because you went in lower, if a male interviewee comes in having made more than you, he’s naturally going to ask for more. The prospective employer then unwittingly may pay them more. This is not to say that all companies are ignorant about this. Many know the gap exists and they don’t do anything to change it.

Another way the cycle perpetuates is by the job market as a whole. In certain fields that are still dominated by men, women are such a minority, that they just can’t catch up. In the construction industry, for example, this is especially apparent.

How to break the cycle

Based on the data collected by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, if the wage gap continues to change as slowly as it has been over the past 50 years, it could take another 41 years for women to be paid equally to men. If you’re a woman of color, it could take even longer.

While having the government and policymakers enforce serious change would be one of the fastest ways to close the gap, women can’t rely on this alone. There are some things women and corporations can do to take matters into their own hands. One of the first steps is for companies to remove the question of what women made at their previous companies. While many companies have started this practice, it still isn’t commonplace. Women should go into an interview not with what they made before but with a well-researched number of what they want to earn now. You may also ask your future employer for what the average pay is for all men and women currently in this role. The more it’s asked and questioned, the more companies will take notice.

Many salaries can be researched or are even posted online. Women shouldn’t sell themselves as short. Do some homework and find out what others are making in your role.

If you suspect you’re currently making less than a male in the same job, finding direct proof can greatly help your case for a raise. Keep in mind that for every year you’re earning less, you’re also earning less towards your retirement and it will directly affect your contributions and savings. It’s a snowball effect that can be really hard to undo. Doing some homework and sadly, assuming you’re already making less will help empower you to ask for more and get what you’re worth.