The gender wage gap: What does it really mean?

It’s an often cited fact – and most people seem to accept it at face value: Women earn less than men, on average. The number varies, but it’s usually somewhere around 20 percent less then what men make. There’s a significant movement afoot to make “equal pay” for women the law of the land. Since women are almost half the workforce, the effects are widespread.

Poverty for women is a serious issue, because it affects more than the individual women – it also has an impact on families, children and entire economies, according to Carmen Rios on Everyday Feminism. Though the overall poverty rate is declining, 18 million women in America are living below the poverty line, 1 in 7 women, including 40 percent of women who are the head of the family. Retired women have double the chance of living in poverty as compared to retired men, and 18 percent of elderly women do.

What causes the gender wage gap? The answer is not a simple, uncomplicated one, because there are a variety of factors that contribute to the issue.

One cause cited by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research is job segregation by gender. Although women have made great progress in moving into formerly male-dominated jobs, the organization stated, “during the last decade there has been very little further progress in the gender integration of work. In some industries and occupations, like construction, there has been no progress in forty years.”

Although women receive more college and graduate degrees than men, the kinds of work that women often pursue, like teaching, social work and nursing, frequently come with a smaller paycheck. Glenn Kessler, ‘The Fact Checker’ at The Washington Post, cites a Georgetown University survey of college majors in which, “nine of the 10 most remunerative majors (such as petroleum and aerospace engineering) were dominated by men, while nine of the 10 least remunerative majors (such as social work and early childhood education) were dominated by women.”

Rios blamed the ‘feminization of poverty,’ a term that describes the social and economic patterns that keep women disproportionally poor everywhere on the globe.  Rios noted that women are the poorest in their communities, regardless of age, race and sexuality, “And it’s because of the way our culture treats issues of class, gender, violence and family devalues women’s labor and denies them the opportunities they need to compete alongside men on equal footing in the workplace.”

Women can also get in their own way. Studies have shown that women tend to ask for lower starting salaries than men, and women also find it much more difficult than men do to ask for raises and promotions.

Likely the largest obstacle to equal pay for women is motherhood. If a woman leaves the workforce to raise children, when she returns to work, she has fallen behind a number of years in experience and seniority. Even more, depending on the kind of work and the industry, she may not be able to pick up where she left off, if advances in technology have left her knowledge and skills outdated.

Once a mother does return to work, she may be more likely to trade higher wages for benefits that are of more value to her. Women are also more likely to work part-time and are also more likely to leave the workforce to care for elders. When those variables are accounted for, “the gap narrows to between 93 cents and 95 cents on the dollar,” wrote Katie Sanders on Politifact.

To perfectly illustrate this point, PolitiFact Georgia found that “childless women in their 20s in major metro areas out-earned their male peers,” by over 20 percent in Atlanta and over 10 percent in Los Angeles.

Sanders cited another study, by the American Association of University Women, which, after controlling for factors including college major, occupation, age, geography and the number of hours worked, still found a 7 percent gap between men and women a year after graduating college.

Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz discussed very similar research on the Freakonomics podcast. The pair compared male and female MBA graduates of the University of Chicago over a period of 15 years, controlling for factors such as previous work experience, GPA, profession chosen and others.

They found only a very small difference in salaries between men and women right out of school which, they indicated, could be caused by discrimination and women’s discomfort with negotiating starting salaries. However, 10 to 15 years later, Goldin and Katz reported, the disparity has grown to 40 percent, “almost all of which is due to career interruptions and fewer hours.”

While women are generally not as willing to work long hours, a greater proportion of men are working 50 or more hours per week, raising their wages even more relative to women’s.

The real issue, it seems, is that the work that women choose has value for them beyond money, and society as a whole does not compensate them for the value those women offer society.

What can be done, then, to narrow the income gap?

Rios suggests, aside from government programs like SNAP, Social Security and Welfare, that women need to learn about managing finances, entrepreneurship, and investing in their communities. Gary Becker, a Chicago School economist, argued that the free market and deregulation would offer women gains in the marketplace.

Kessler aptly sums up the root of the issue in a very politically incorrect fashion by saying, “Unless women stop getting married and having children, and start abandoning careers in childhood education for aerospace engineering, the gap in wages will almost certainly persist.”

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