In the United States workforce, female employees earn an average of 82 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts earn. Aside from being inherently unfair, the gender pay gap also exacerbates existing inequalities faced by women. Specifically, the gender pay gap hinders women’s lifetime earnings, resulting in an unequal distribution of wealth between men and women.
Various factors contribute to the overall divide between men’s and women’s average salaries. These factors include but are not limited to: the occupations that men and women choose, schedule flexibility, and differences in experiences and qualifications.
Many of the factors that cause the gender pay gap are naturally occurring and do not relate to gender discrimination. However, even when accounting for all identifiable factors that contribute to the pay gap, an unexplained difference between men’s and women’s average salaries remains. Unfortunately, gender discrimination is very prominent in today’s workforce, and these naturally occurring factors are not wholly responsible for the difference between men’s and women’s earnings. After examining the various factors that contribute to the gender pay gap, the extent to which gender-based discrimination remains at play is far more apparent.
Many people attribute the gender pay gap to the fact that men and women are clustered in different types of occupations. Typically, men comprise the majority of STEM-related occupations. In fact, men comprise roughly 72% of jobs in engineering, science and information technology, almost all of which provide employees with very generous salaries. Women, on the other hand, are clustered in a narrow range of underpaid sectors. More specifically, women comprise the majority in education, service and care-related occupations, including teaching, personal care, social work and nursing. Unsurprisingly, occupations such as these are notoriously underpaid. In sum, lucrative careers disproportionately hire men, while low-paying careers disproportionately hire women.
Occupational segregation is reflective of extreme gender inequality within the U.S. workforce. A longstanding feature of the nation’s workforce, occupational segregation on the basis of gender is deeply embedded in American society and culture. As of 2020, only 6.5% of American women worked in male-dominated industries.
Gendered Socialization and Confidence
The roots of occupational segregation often stem from gendered socialization in childhood education. In school, boys are frequently taught that they excel in math and science and are subsequently encouraged to pursue a career in STEM. Girls, in comparison, are usually taught that they excel in more nurturing and caregiving roles and are thereby encouraged to pursue female-dominated professions. This gendered stereotyping impacts the strengths and skills students develop, as well as the effort that students invest in their schoolwork.
By second grade, many girls lose confidence in their math abilities. At this same age, however, boys are more likely to report being strong in math. While some boys are naturally more gifted in STEM subjects, neither gender is innately more adept at any subject; without the influence of socialization and stereotyping, it is untrue that boys’ average math abilities exceed those of girls. Rather, boys are socialized to be more confident in their math abilities.
As children rise through school, gendered socialization has a profound impact on students’ confidence, leading boys to internalize that they are proficient in STEM subjects and girls to internalize that they are not. Over time, this exacerbates occupational segregation and prevents girls from developing the confidence to pursue the highest-paid careers in the workforce.
Challenges in Male-Dominated Workplaces
Undoubtedly, choosing a career path is complex, and no single reason can explain why women generally choose to pursue lower-paying occupations. However, many women may opt for female-dominated occupations to potentially avoid the challenges in predominately male fields. For instance, some women may avoid STEM jobs because they are afraid of being the only woman in the office or navigating condescension from their peers and higher-ups. Sadly, many women in male-dominated spaces not only experience sexism on a regular basis, but also sexual harassment. Consequently, many women may avoid male-dominated careers out of fear they will work in a hostile environment.
Furthermore, women’s professional successes are not always interpreted positively. Interestingly, women who succeed in female-dominated careers are usually viewed positively. However, the same does not hold for women who rise the ranks in male-dominated spaces. In fact, women who succeed in engineering and finance are more likely to be viewed as unsociable and unpleasant. Despite their accomplishments, successful women in lucrative careers are often faced with a negative reputation and ostracization from their colleagues.
Naturally, the more time and effort a person can invest in their job, the greater their salary will be. Notably, if an employee is able to work overtime and travel with short notice, they are far more likely to be compensated at a higher rate than an employee who does not have that flexibility. Within companies, this phenomenon often results in male employees — who often have increased flexibility — being paid more than their female counterparts.
Many attribute the gender pay gap to the fact that men travel more frequently, take on more demanding jobs and work longer, more unusual hours. In some regards, this is supported by data. Compared to women, men are much more likely to work more than 50 hours in one week. However, this is only one part of the story.
Typically, within individual families, women are burdened with greater household labor and caregiving responsibilities. In most families, the responsibility of raising and adequately caring for children falls on the maternal figure. 74% of women in the U.S. report that they spend more time managing their children’s schedules and activities. Furthermore, 59% of women report that they perform more household chores than their partner, including cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry. Due to the abundance of responsibilities that many women have outside of the workplace, some are unable to dedicate as much time to their work lives as their male counterparts.
Parenting and the Motherhood Penalty
Unlike men, when women decide to have children, they are forced to take a leave of absence from work. Inevitably, pregnancy leads to disruptions in women’s careers. Furthermore, many women choose to take an extended period of time off work to care for and bond with their newborn. The fewer years an employee has worked, the lower their salary will be. As a result, women typically have greater career disruptions, which are often perceived negatively by employers. Indirectly, women are punished for having children and for their caregiving responsibilities, while men are not. This, too, depresses women’s average earnings.
Due to the caregiving responsibilities that come along with having children, women are viewed as less desirable employees if they are transparent about being a mother. This pattern, known as the “motherhood penalty,” can severely diminish women’s earnings. Generally, women have a lower chance of being hired if they admit to having children, and if a mother is hired, she is more likely to be offered a lower pay rate. In theory, men with children would be treated in the same way by hiring managers. However, this is not the case. In fact, some evidence indicates that there is a “fatherhood bonus,” where men’s salaries actually increase after having children.
Limits on Career Advancement
Another factor that contributes to the gender pay gap is the glass ceiling, which refers to an array of invisible barriers that prevent women from attaining high-ranking positions within the workforce. Multiple factors contribute to the existence of the glass ceiling. First, women are more likely to be viewed as less competent at work, and therefore, receive fewer promotions. Furthermore, sexual harassment within the workforce is rampant and prevents women from staying at one organization for an extended period. 80% of women who experience sexual harassment at a new job will quit within two years. Additionally, many women are afraid of the repercussions of asking for a raise or advocating for a better position. These obstacles often block women from attaining high-paying careers and high-authority positions.
Improvement on the Horizon
At the current pace of social progress in the United States, the pay gap will not close for nearly another century. Specifically, if no changes are made, the gender pay gap will not disappear until 2111. However, there is hope for positive change. Compared to previous generations, occupational segregation is least prominent among the youngest millennials in the United States. In and of itself, this news is deeply promising.
To move toward decreasing the gender pay gap, we must understand it in its entirety. First and foremost, the gender pay gap must be acknowledged as real and treated as the serious inequality issue that it is. As demonstrated, various factors have created the infamous gender pay gap, each contributing to it in a unique way and requiring a specific set of interventions.
Examining the prejudices that exist toward working women who are also mothers is essential; society must also work to identify effective solutions for childcare. Perhaps most importantly, changes in how children are socialized, especially regarding their skills and abilities, may have the most impact on changing the landscape for women at work. Building a generation of confident girls who see an array of available employment choices will benefit all and move women beyond these barriers.