For decades now, median earnings for women have been stuck at about 20 percent below men’s. Why hasn’t there been more progress on wage equality?
The answer may lie with a troubling new research study: work done by women just isn’t valued as much.
That explanation sounds like a familiar old refrain, but details from the research help explain the persistence in this pay gap long after many causal factors behind inequality disappeared. For instance, women are now better educated than men, have almost the same work experience and are just as likely to pursue high-paying careers. No longer can the gap be explained with the old truisms that women outnumber men in lower-paying jobs like teaching or social work.
A recent study out of Cornell University determined that the difference between the occupations and industries dominated by men versus women has recently become the single largest factor in the gender pay gap, accounting for more than half of it. In fact, another study shows, as soon as women begin to enter a field in larger numbers, the pay drops — even when they’re doing the exact same job that more men were doing before.
Consider the different in jobs involving similar education, responsibility, or skills, but divided by gender. The median pay of IT managers (predominantly men) are 27% higher than that for human resources managers (mostly women), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. At the other end of the pay spectrum, janitors (typically men) earn 22% more than maids and housecleaners (mostly women).
Once women move into a field, “It just doesn’t look like it’s as important to the bottom line or requires as much skill,” said Paula England, a professor of sociology with New York University. “Gender bias sneaks into those decisions.”
England co-authored one of the most comprehensive studies of the phenomenon, based on U.S. census data from 1945 to 2000, when the portion of women increased in many jobs. That study, conducted jointly with Asaf Levanon, of the University of Haifa in Israel, and Paul Allison of the University of Pennsylvania, revealed that once women move into occupations in significant numbers, those jobs start to pay less even after controlling for education, work experience, skills, race and geography.
Moreover, there was strong evidence that employers assigned less value to work done by women. “It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance,” Ms. England said. Rather, “the employers are deciding to pay it less.”
A notable example can be seen in the field of recreation — working in parks or leading camps — which went from male to female dominated between 1950 to 2000. Median hourly wages in this field declined by 57% points (accounting for inflation) according to a complex formula used by Professor Levanon. The position of ticket agents also shifted from mainly male to female over that period, and wages dropped 43%.
A similar thing occurred when large numbers of women became designers (wages fell 34%), housekeepers (wages fell 21%) and biologists (wages fell 18%). And inverse trend occurred when a field started attracting more men. Computer programming, for instance, was once a relatively menial role done by women. Yet when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.
While the pay gap has been shrinking, it is still significant. All in all, where men are the majority of workers, the median pay is $962 a week — 22% higher than in positions with a majority of women, according to another new study, published recently by Third Way, a research group seeking to advance centrist policy ideas.
Today, discrepancies in the type of work men and women do make up 51% of the pay gap, a bigger portion than in 1980, according to definitive new research by Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, economists at Cornell.
Over the past several decades, women have migrated into historically male jobs much more in white-collar fields than in blue-collar ones. Yet the gender pay gap is largest in higher-paying white-collar jobs, as Ms. Blau and Mr. Kahn determined. One reason for this may be that these jobs require longer and less flexible hours, and research has shown that workers are disproportionately penalized for wanting flexibility.
Of the 30 highest-salary jobs, including CEO, architect and computer engineer, 26 are male-dominated, according to Labor Department data. Of the 30 lowest-paying positions, including food server, housekeeper and child-care worker, 23 are female dominated.
Many differences that make up the pay gap have faded since the 1980s, of course. Women now get more education overall than men and have nearly as much work experience. Women shifted from clerical to managerial jobs and became slightly more likely than men to belong to a union. Both changes helped improve wage parity, Ms. Blau’s and Mr. Kahn’s research said.
Ms. England, in another research study, found that any work that involves caregiving, such as nursing or preschool teaching, pays less, even after controlling for the disproportionate share of female workers.
After analyzing the data, Ms. Blau and Mr. Kahn concluded that outright discrimination may explain 38% of the gender pay gap. Discrimination could also indirectly produce an even bigger share of the pay gap, they explained, for instance, by dis-incentivizing women from pursuing high-paying, male-dominated jobs in the first place.
“Some of it undoubtedly does represent the preferences of women, either for particular job types or some flexibility, but there could be barriers to entry for women and these could be very subtle,” Ms. Blau said. “It could be because the very culture and male dominance of the occupation acts as a deterrent.”
For instance, social factors may be leading more women than men to move into lower-paying but geographically flexible jobs. Even though dual-career marriages are now the norm, married couples will more typically choose their location based on the man’s career, since men earn more. This factor is both a result and cause of the gender pay gap.
Some explanations for the pay gap cut in both directions. One interesting factor is the gender difference in noncognitive skills. Men are commonly thought to be more competitive and confident than women, and according to this belief, they might be more inclined to pursue highly competitive jobs.
But Ms. Blau reminded the public that it is impossible to disentangle nature from nurture. And there is strong indication that noncognitive skills, like collaboration, diplomacy and compromise, are advantages for women in today’s labor market. Occupations that call for such skills have grown at a higher rate over others since 1980, according to Harvard University research studies. Moreover, women appear to have taken advantage of these job opportunities at a higher rate than men.
Still, even in situations where women and men are equally represented in a profession, the pay gap remains. Men and women earn different pay not only when they do different jobs but also when they do the same work. Yet another Harvard study showed a pay gap within occupations. One of the most prominent examples is that of female physicians, who earn 71% of what male physicians earn. Women working as lawyers earn 82% of their male counterparts.
There are some policies that have been shown to help close the occupational pay gap, including raising the minimum wage (since women disproportionately work at the lowest end of the pay scale). Paid family leave is also a highly valuable tool.
Another idea, according to Ms. Liner of Third Way, is to place priority on individual talents and interests when people are choosing careers, even when that means going against gender norms. For instance, we could encourage girls to be engineers and boys to be teachers or caregivers. “There’s nothing stopping men and women from switching roles and being a maid versus a janitor except for social constructs,” she said.