On the surface, PayScale’s latest report on the gender pay gap seems like good news: when controlled for factors like job title, experience, and education, the data show that women currently earn 97 cents for every dollar a man earns. That 2.7 percent gap isn’t the 0.0 percent we’d like, but it’s a lot better than the 78-cents-on-the-dollar figure we often hear reported. But, if we look at the uncontrolled data, and compare all working women’s earnings to those of all working men, the gap gets significantly larger – 74 cents to the dollar, for a gap of 25.6 percent.
(Photo: Micah H./Unsplash)
The obvious reason for that gap is that jobs with higher pay are often dominated by men. For example, among commonly held jobs for each gender in the U.S., office managers make less than engineers, and home health aides make less than network systems administrators, and the higher paying roles are more likely to be held by men than women.
On a national level, the most common jobs for women were administrative or secretarial, and paid less than $46,000 per year; the most common jobs for men were technology, engineering, or construction management jobs, and paid more than $64,000 per year.
Why We Should Care
Whenever we discuss the differences in men’s and women’s pay, we inevitably hear comments to the effect of, “Well, who cares? If women want to opt into lower-paying jobs, and men want to pursue higher-paying careers, what’s the big deal?”
The problem is that these choices (or, as we’ll see in a moment, “choices”) have a significant effect on women’s financial well-being, which impacts their lives, the lives of their families, and ultimately, the health of the economy as a whole.
- 1 in 3 American women live in poverty or are on the brink of it. That’s 42 million women – and 28 million children.
- Two-thirds of American women are the breadwinners in their family, or share that role equally with another member of the family.
- Almost two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women.
The Shriver Report also notes that single motherhood is one of the biggest indicators of poverty. This fits with PayScale’s findings, which showed that single mothers had the lowest uncontrolled and controlled pay ($38,200, and $45,500, respectively).
One study found that poverty-level wages cost taxpayers nearly $153 billion a year in programs like SNAP (commonly known as food stamps) and TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families). But, even if we’re looking at above-minimum-wage jobs, it makes sense that a family whose primary breadwinner is a customer service representative (the most common job for women in Nebraska; median annual salary of $31,400) will struggle more than one whose primary breadwinner is a construction manager (the most common job for men in that state; median annual salary of $57,900).
Why Women “Choose” Lower Paying Occupations
When it comes to jobs, low pay doesn’t equal low value to society. Few people would claim that a social worker has less value to society than a corporate lawyer, but the latter makes more than twice as much money, in terms of median salary ($41,662 for the social worker; $100,736 for the corporate lawyer).
Part of the reason women dominate lower-paying jobs is that they’re not encouraged to think about pay when choosing their occupations or pursuing education. The goal, then, would be to fix the pipeline, and make sure that all students know that they don’t have to choose between earning a good living and making the world a better place.
Then there’s the fact that family affects women’s earnings. In PayScale’s survey, men reported prioritizing home and family more often than women, but women who did report prioritizing their home obligations took a bigger hit to their salaries. For example, women who reported prioritizing home one or more times per week earned 3.4 percent less than men who did the same. In fact, only single, childless women who never prioritized their home over their careers showed a 0.0 percent gap with men. In short, unconscious bias is a factor, both in terms of how women are treated at work and in terms of the kind of work they choose.
A 2012 paper from researchers at McGill University and the Wharton School, entitled Do Women Choose Different Jobs from Men? Mechanisms of Application Segregation in the Market for Managerial Workers, examined data on MBA students’ job searches and found that women did opt for different jobs, but not necessarily because they valued money less than men:
We find evidence that gender role socialization leads men and women to evaluate differently each of the three decision factors that shape job choice – how specific rewards are valued, whether workers identify with those jobs, and whether applications are expected to result in offers. Specifically, we find that women apply to jobs with higher anticipated work-life balance; that needs for self-consistency make women less likely to apply to masculine stereotyped jobs, with which they identify less; and that lower expectations of offer success in masculine stereotyped jobs reduce women’s propensity to apply. We do not find evidence that gender differences in the preference for monetary rewards shape application decisions. Nor do we find that women are actually less likely to receive offers for jobs in finance once they apply.
In other words, women may well “lean out” because they perceive that they’ll need more work-life balance than men, as well as believing that they’ll have less success in “masculine stereotyped roles.”
In an environment in which even female MBA students feel they’ll have less success than men in certain jobs – and the data indicate that they’re right, for reasons beyond their control – it’s not at all strange if women continue to opt for lower-paying career tracks. And, of course, when fewer women make it to the top rungs of the corporate ladder, it’s harder for women to visualize (and actualize) the same success.
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