While browsing Facebook I saw someone share an image that said; “If women want to close the wage gap they should start majoring in engineering and stop majoring in dance.” I laughed in disbelief, thinking to myself; “He has no idea how the wage gap works.” But then I thought; “Do I even know how the wage gap really works?” I spoke with Molly Cooper, an economics professor at The Ohio State University, to try to demystify the gendered wage gap.
Most people have heard the statistic that women make 80 cents to a man’s dollar. And it’s even lower if you’re a woman of color. This statistic is found by taking the median salary of fulltime working males and females, no matter what occupation, and getting a ratio. What makes comparing male and female salaries sticky is the fact that they are generally working in different fields. One out of every two workers would have to change jobs if we wanted women and men equally represented in each field. Men and women are slowly crossing over into fields that the opposite gender dominates, and making those jobs more integrated. Part of what creates the wage gap is the fact that many male dominated fields earn more: surgeons, engineers, lawyers, etc. So you may be thinking; “Oh great, that misogynistic Facebook dude was right.” Not quite. There is a theory that women are structurally underpaid simply because their fields are female dominated. Women and their work were regarded as inferior in the past and wages still reflect that. Nurses, social workers, psychologists and teachers are all female dominated careers that require at least 4-year degrees and are underpaid. Comparable worth aims to realign pay based on how important the job is and how much training is involved. This is difficult for the federal government to implement; it is more likely to happen through supply and demand. For example, nurses’ salaries are continuing to rise because we have a demand for them.
Women who do enter male-dominated, high paying or even well-integrated fields have obstacles as well. First of all, there is a problem called the “family gap”. Women who aren’t mothers tend to make closer to what men make (~90%.) Mothers receive less pay, due to their perceived responsibilities at home. Generally, women are expected to have most of the responsibility of the kids and the housework, while men don’t have that added stress and can focus more on work. On the plus side, that appears to be changing. Younger men are more concerned with balancing family time with work. A study done by Kathleen L. McGuinn found that men who grew up with working mom’s were more likely to help out more around the house and spend time with the family. So it seems we are head towards more egalitarian households, which should help close the wage gap. But as Molly Cooper stated; “I’ll know we are equal when the school calls my husband before me when one of the kids are sick.”
Another piece to this puzzle is the fact that women are more educated than men. In 2011, women held 57.2% of bachelor’s degrees, 60% of master’s degrees, 51% of PhD’s and 49% of first professional degrees (Law, veterinary science and medicine.) Women often need more qualifications and experience to get the same jobs that men do. Not to mention once they get into a position they often face what is known as the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling refers to the fact that women are often shut out of high-level positions in companies; think CEO level. Getting into these prestigious spots often takes mentorship and people often want to mentor someone that reminds them of their younger self. This often means shutting out women.
But don’t lose all hope just yet! The wage gap has been steadily narrowing over the years. Women used to make 60% of what men made in the 1970’s. Overall occupations are becoming more integrated. The job market is going to have to compensate for the increase in highly educated women by hiring them. A big part of the wage gap is how we are socialized; gender stereotypes in society have an affect on what career direction people choose. A boy who wants to be a nurse or a girl who aspires to be an engineer may be criticized and discouraged from pursing what they really want to do. But luckily, ideas are changing about gender norms. Boys and girls are starting to grow up seeing both parents contributing more equally to family care and household chores. Girls are also seeing more and more women represented across all occupations. So don’t despair! The wage gap is on the political radar and we are headed towards change.