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Insights from New Research on the Gender Wage Gap

My niece just had a baby and is worried about being paid less than her male peers. She is an engineer with solid work experience on her resume, and she intends to return to work full time. She wants answers from me about how to avoid becoming a victim of the gender wage gap.

Unfortunately, new research reported by Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times reinforces that, as a new mother in her late twenties with a college degree and a professional career, she is poised to become a wage gap statistic. I don’t know what to tell her about how to avoid this. Because most companies keep salary data secret, she will probably only be able to suspect unfair treatment but will not be able to prove it. The odds, and statistics, are stacked against her.

Miller reports on two new studies on the gender wage gap that sharpen our understanding of what is happening to women’s pay, when it’s happening, and why. The studies, conducted by Sari Kerr of Wellesley College in collaboration with several female colleagues at other universities, combine two databases from the Census Bureau on private sector companies that reveal fresh nuances in the gender wage gap picture:

  • The gender wage gap is wider for college-educated women than for those with no college degree and occurs between the ages of twenty-four and forty-five.
  • College-educated women make 90 percent as much as men their age at twenty-five, but only 55 percent as much by the age of forty-five.
  • Men with college degrees get significant pay increases when they change jobs during those years. When married women change jobs, they are less likely to get big pay increases.
  • Miller cites Kerr as explaining that the bulk of the pay gap, accounting for fully 73 percent of the gap, is from “women not getting raises and promotions at the same rate as men within companies. Seniority and experience seem to pay off much more for men than women.”
  • The wage gap is not as wide for women without college degrees. The gap for this group is 28 percent instead of 55 percent because there are fewer high paying jobs available for men without college degrees to create the larger gap.

Why does the wage gap happen? Miller cites Kerr’s report to explain:

  • High-paying jobs requiring college degrees place more value on long, inflexible hours and face time. Because studies show that the division of labor at home is still unequal, even when both spouses work full time, women’s careers tend to suffer.
  • Women are more likely to give up job opportunities in favor of their husband’s job.
  • Even when women continue to work full time after having children, employers pay them less because they assume women are less committed.
  • When mothers cut back on their hours, their pay is disproportionately cut.

What can be done to achieve pay equity? Miller suggests some workplace and policy changes needed to break the wage gap cycle:

  • Companies can put less priority on long hours and face time in the office and reward results instead.
  • Government-subsidized child care can make it possible for both parents to balance the demands of career and family.
  • Companies should offer moderate-length parental leave for both women and men. (While my niece received a three-month maternity leave, her husband’s company allowed only three days for paternity leave.)
  • Companies need to be transparent about salary data.

I wish I had specific guidance to offer my niece, but I don’t. We are all going to have to continue to push for policy changes that will make equity possible. In the meantime, I hope she keeps fighting for fairness and does not get discouraged. What suggestions do you have for young women who want pay equity?

Photo courtesy of Skeddy in NYC. CC by 2.0

 

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