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Why Do Women Still Earn Less in the Workplace?

women in workplaceFollowing Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address, fact-checkers pounced on the President for his statement that women earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by male counterparts in the workplace. Critics charged that Obama’s data point, which he used as a rallying cry in the speech, is misleading. Yet when it comes to gender and wages, it’s those critics who are misleading.

The Daily Beast ran an aggressive rebuttal by Christina Hoff Sommers titled No, Women Don’t Make Less Than Men. Sommers, who is an outspoken critic of feminism and a pundit for the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, says that if you compare a man and a woman with the same education in similar jobs, women “only” earn about 5 cents less.

Sommers makes the following claim in her piece: “No one knows if the five cents is a result of discrimination or some other subtle hard-to-measure difference between male and female workers.” What else could such a discrepancy possibly be? Sommers then argues that women are choosing low-paying work professions.

But the pundit isn’t the first to argue that women “choose” lower-paying work. Like many others, she stops short of probing deeper into the economic and social factors that drive those career-path choices. But any way you cut it, women make less than men (even Sommers concedes that fact) and that discrepancy is far either a “subtle difference” or willful choice.

Women currently occupy two out of every three low wage jobs, but make up just 14% of the highest earning positions at Fortune 500 companies, according to the business action organization Catalyst

Here’s how the gap was created:

1. Highly-paid “male-dominated” fields such as engineering and computer science, are often hostile environments for women. The small number of women in the tech industry and the blatant sexism characterizing Silicon Valley has become material for frequent complaints.

2. Just as importantly, preparation for those high-paying positions must start early on in one’s education, where patterns of sexism direct kids along different career paths. A mere 0.3 percent of girls arrive at their first year of college with plans to major in computer science, according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education from instructors in the science and engineering fields. One explanation is that long because before girls even get to college, they’re bombarded with messages from the media that working with technology is the exclusive domain of male geeks. Such stereotypes are especially tough to debunk when schools fail to educate their female students about the relative value of pursuing a career in the technical fields; and perhaps more important, those students see female role models working as computer scientists or engineers as they are considering career options.

3. Fields that have traditionally attracted women such as teaching, social work and other “caretaking” professions tend to be lower paying — partly because they are considered “women’s work. Just think about the historical development of the secretary, which has been the top position for women since 1950. When secretarial positions initially came into the workforce during the industrial revolution, they were overwhelmingly male-dominated. But when companies realized they could pay women less to do the same job, it suddenly became a field mostly defined by women, according to CNNMoney. As “The End of Men” author Hanna Rosin writes in Slate criticizing the 77 cents on the dollar stat, “Is it that women are choosing lower-paying professions or that our country values women’s professions less?”

4. Many women must take a leave of absence from their jobs, in part because of an absence of needed public policies. Women who have babies usually take breaks from their jobs to raise children provide older relative care, making it more difficult to keep up in their career paths and climb the career ladder.

Policies like paid family leave and subsidized child care could mitigate this so-called mommy penalty.” A 2012 study of California’s paid family leave program found that the initiative increased women’s incomes and work hours by 9%. But California’s program is uncommon, a shameful fact when one considers that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation with no mandated paid maternity leave.

5. Finally, even when women do have “the choice” to do everything exactly the same as men career-wise, they still come out behind. Controlling for factors like education, occupation and number of hours worked, women make about 5% less than their male colleagues, according to a 2011 analysis by the St. Louis Federal Reserve. That comes out to roughly $35 a week, $1,750 a year and $52,500 over a 30-year career. And as women move forward in their careers that gap grows, to bigger dimensions, as data indicate from a University of Chicago study of MBA students.

So, to restate the hard facts here: women earn less than men. And as President Obama put it, “In 2014, that’s an embarrassment.”

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Emery Reddy