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Work Hard, Equal Pay
Women earn, on average, 77 cents to every dollar earned by men. Factor in race, and we see disparities even higher for women of color. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, the first law signed by President Obama, is supposed to help eradicate unequal pay.
Many experts contend that this law has done very little to change the pay gap. The problem is that this Act’s focus might be too narrow.
The pay gap exists for many reasons. Probably most important is occupational sex segregation, in which women and men work in different fields. Equal pay for equal work is important, but when such a large percentage of our employees work in sex-segregated occupations (about 40% of women and 60% of men), we need to be thinking broader if we want to reduce the pay gap.
Causes of gender-based pay inequality
Women have been in the work force for fewer years than men. As a group, women have had less time to work their way up in companies. This is due to past discrimination in which many women were legally denied employment and to gender roles that led to a view of the workplace as “male” territory.
Women also tend to be less educated than men. Again, this is due to past discrimination in which women were prohibited from pursuing higher education. Women who did pursue college degrees were often steered towards majors such as domestic engineering where they learned how to be a “good” housewife. Less education means lower qualifications for high-paying jobs. The educational gap is shrinking quickly as women are now over 50% of all college students.
A related argument is that women tend to make choices to bear and raise children. This decision may keep them out of the work force for large periods of times, reducing their potential for advancement. Employers may be less likely to hire or promote women who are viewed as less productive employees due to their family obligations.
Overall, men who are married with children are viewed by employers as the most reliable employees. The old stereotypes that men work to support a family, while women work for extra spending money, are very important in the current reality of work and employment.
These "choices" that many women make to rear children are tied to our society's gender roles in which child-rearing is viewed as the primary responsibility of women.
When you factor in the societal need for procreation, child-bearing becomes less of an issue of "choice.” We need women to have babies. Employers need us to have babies because they are the future workers. It seems employers should be working with both women and men in regards to family life, instead of against them, as is so often the case.
The Major Factor
In the article, “Despite New Law, Gender Salary Gap Persists,” Jennifer Ludden states that occupational segregation is a major factor in explaining the gender pay gap. Men and women don’t typically work in the same types of jobs, so the pay gap is not usually a clear-cut case of employers purposely paying men more than women for the same work.
The jobs that are most gender-segregated can explain some of these pay gap issues.
Highly segregated “women’s work” includes domestic work, child care, secretarial/administration, elementary teaching, and nursing. Highly segregated “men’s work” includes construction, engineering, college-level teaching, school administration, police work, and computer programming. The female-segregated jobs often pay less and have less promotion potential than many of the male-segregated jobs.
Sex-segregation in employment, which lends to the pay gap, may be linked to traditional gender roles. The jobs that are the most sex-segregated are the ones where women are domestics and care-givers, and men are providers and protectors.
Some contend that many male-segregated jobs pay higher wages because of greater physical risks. But, nurses, nail technicians, and many other “female” jobs entail a great deal of physical risk. Further, gender discrimination plays a part in the pay gap even within sex-segregated jobs. Women in typically “male” jobs tend to earn less than men in those fields; conversely, men in typically “female” jobs such as nursing tend to be promoted more quickly and earn more than their female counterparts.
Even controlling for all the factors discussed, there is still a pay gap between men and women. Most sociologists and other experts explain this remaining gap as the result of continued gender stereotyping and discrimination.
So what is the solution to the pay gap?
Laws like the Fair Pay Restoration Act are certainly a start, but the policies need to go further. The solution of comparable worth is a strategy that might be employed. The Fair Pay Act, which is considered unlikely to pass, takes a stab at doing just this.
Since so much work is sex-segregated, we should pay people based on the education necessary to acquire a job and the skills and tasks required to be successful. We need to value skills in a gender-neutral way so that skills like cooperation and multi-tasking (typically viewed as female strengths) are valued as highly as skills like leadership and autonomy (strengths typically viewed as male). Comparable worth would have the effect of rewarding both men and women based on merit rather than on gender.
Since women are often sanctioned in the workforce for their presumed domestic responsibilities, we need to change the workplace culture itself. We need to encourage employers to see child-bearing and child-rearing as less about individual choices or “women’s” choices and more about societal needs. It is functional for society that people procreate. The work force, as a societal institution, needs to support this. Men and women both have children. Both men and women seek to provide financial support for themselves and those children. Both men and women seek to provide emotional support to their families. We need employers that work with these goals and nurture them instead of ones that view family life as less important or as non-productive.
Such cultural changes should have the effect of decreasing the gender pay gap as the dual responsibilities of work and family life are harmonized.