The Wage Gap Explained

iStock_000004797699XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Several years ago, I stepped into a career fair at my undergraduate university. As a 22-year old anthropology major, I had little direction regarding my future career. The first thing I noticed was that all of the other students were wearing suits and had fancy leather portfolios. Meanwhile, I had merely tucked in my shirt before wandering in from the cafeteria, which is where I had first noticed a flyer for the expo.

I felt like a fish out of water – but what happened next surprised me even more.

I was immediately approached by a recruiter from a global defense contractor, asking me what I thought I might want to do for my career. I responded, “I’m not sure… I think I want to do something that helps people.”

The recruiter chuckled, and said, “I think there’s a table of folks from Prince George County Schools over there.” He pointed me in the right direction and moved onto the next college senior.

Now, I’m not saying that I would have been a good recruit for the defense contractor. But I suspect a man in my position would have gotten a harder sell on the company (maybe something like how defense firms do plenty of good, providing security for people around the world), or at least a folder of information, possibly a magnet or lanyard. I got the brush-off instead, and the suggestion that I might prefer being a teacher.

My story illustrates a few of the ways subtle gender bias influences the careers women choose and are encouraged to choose. It also helps point out a lot about the subtle, sinister factors driving the wage gap. Women today make only 82 percent of what their male peers make one year out of college.

The Wage Gap Explained

Recently the American Association of University Women (AAUW) published its latest report on the gender pay gap. Women one year out of college in the US can expect to make 82 percent of their male counterparts.

Some of this gap (about two-thirds) can be explained by factors like college major, career choices, or hours worked per week. For example, women are more likely to go into fields where they believe they can help others – in jobs that are often lower paying.  The AAUW suggests, though, that thinking more deeply about “helping others” could broaden women’s career options. The report says:

“Fortunately, the highest paying majors for women—engineering, health care fields, and computer and information sciences— also lay the groundwork for careers that have great potential to help people.  Women (and men) who are motivated to help others need not sacrifice their own economic security in pursuit of that worthy goal. It is possible to simultaneously do work that benefits society and earn a good salary.”

But even when the AAUW controlled for the above factors (college major, career choices, or hours worked per week), women still made less.

One year out of school, women who majored in engineering made 88 percent of what their male counterparts made. Women who majored in computer science made 77 percent of what their male counterparts made.  Women who majored in business made 84 percent of what their males counterparts made. And women who majored in social sciences made 83 percent of what their male counterparts made.

Similarly, women who worked 40 hours per week made 84 percent of what their male counterparts made. Women who worked 45 and 50 hours per week made 82 percent of what their male counterparts made.

The wage gap persists even for women and men in similar careers. The report continues, “In business and management occupations, women earned 86 percent of what men earned; similarly, in sales occupations, women earned just 77 percent of what their male peers earned.” As for teachers, women in the profession made 89 percent of what their male peers did.

The gap can’t simply be explained away by saying women choose less lucrative careers or majors, or that women work fewer hours than men. Even when controlling for all of these factors women still earn less. And that gap is caused by bias, clear and simple.

The AAUW suggests a few ways to minimize the gap for young women – like pushing for transparency around pay and performance evaluation.

One factor in the wage gap is a willingness to negotiate – many women aren’t. But the challenge here is that women are often penalized when they do (studies show that women who negotiate are viewed less favorably than men). But that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t do it – it can still boost income levels.

Finally, the AAUW encourages people to increase their understanding of implicit bias. Both women and men have biases, and most aren’t aware of them. By learning more about the ways we are socialized to behave, we can battle the forces that discourage women from more lucrative careers or majors, and from asking for more. We can also change the idea of “women’s work” and “men’s work” that also contributes to the gap.