The Gender Wage Gap in the United States: Current Policy and an Improved Approach for Closing the Gap

By Sareen Armani
2013, Vol. 5 No. 06 | pg. 1/4 |

“Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation—not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal1, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” (Obama, 2004).

In 21st century America, newborn Americans are in fact not magically granted equality upon birth. Rather, these children enter a world where society is, even now, infatuated with unequal and simplistic categorizations that hierarchize people based on the genetically determined color pigmentation of their skin, the genitalia underneath their clothes, or the monetary amount attributed to their clothes. The intersectionality that is race, sex, and social class continues to define human beings in America, inhibiting equal advancement in our society. When confronting the elephant in the room and mentioning the seemingly socially forbidden word, “discrimination,” countless stigmas arise, which prevent the effective degradation of such discriminatory categories. Why do such stigmas still revolve around the basic human right of equality, and why do we, as Americans, still see manifestations of inequality today?

Specifically, gender discrimination in our social structure continues to favor males over females, trickling down to various sectors of society, such as the workplace. The gender wage gap is a tangible result of such inequality and is measured as “the difference between male and female earning expressed as a percentage of male earnings” (OECD, 2011). Using 2011 median annual American salaries for men and women, $48,202 and $37,118 for men and women respectively, the pay gap was found to be 23% in 20112. Females therefore make 77 cents for every dollar males make, and female college graduates make $8,000 less than male graduates, just one year after graduation. The gender gap continues to linger, as the 23% gap has been stagnant at the same value since 2005, while being 26.7% in 2000 and 28.6% in 1995 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). The gap is more substantial for racial minorities and increases with age.

The existence of the 23% gap has been attributed to a variety of endlessly debated factors that differentiate social scientists and economists, ultimately leaving behind a tangled web of possible social and economical factors. While sociologists attribute a majority of this gap to discrimination, economists combat such a stance with an argument based on choice. Accordingly, men “choose” to enter jobs associated with elevated amounts of stress and risk, which are higher paid occupations that require longer hours at work. However, individuals’ occupational decisions are tainted by their gender and other categorizations, thus limiting their occupational choices by their respective socially determined categories. When a potential employee decides which occupational field to commit to, an individual may make such occupational decisions in a self-fulfilling prophecy that coincides with gender roles predetermining available jobs. By a female “choosing” to work at a job that is most easily available to her, she is undoubtedly nudged to enter a lower paid, predominately female occupation, as such industrial and occupational segregated jobs are the easiest for her to attain.

In the case of a mother, she will work fewer hours, not because she chooses to, but because of the motherhood penalty, where having a child is predominately a woman’s barrier to employment due to current policies that do not help mothers. Mothers are not perceived to be ideal workers and such an assumption translated into the subtle discrimination of mothers during hiring, promotion, and salary decisions (Correll, Benard, & Paik, 2007). With marriage and maternal leave laws favoring the nuclear family model, married women who leave the workforce to care for their children do not have job security and are rarely promoted once they re-enter the job market. Thus arises an imbalance between paid and unpaid work between the sexes, as females provide most unpaid household work (Bolzendahl & Olafsdottir, 2008), leading to a lower amount of paid work hours. Choice is therefore not exactly free will but constricted by discriminatory gender roles that segregate occupations (England, Gender Inequality in Labor Markets: The Role of Motherhood and Segregation, 2005). Even if supposed choices were accounted for, such as an individual’s decisions of college major, occupation, industry, sector, hours worked, in addition to workplace flexibility, experience, educational attainment, enrollment status, GPA, institution selectivity, age, race/ethnicity, region, marital status, and number of children, there is still a 5-12% of the 23% gap that is indeed unexplained (AAUW, 2012). It is therefore unlikely that economists’ choice reasoning is the explanation for the entire gap.

Socially embedded discrimination thus enters the picture as a fueling entity of the gender wage gap. Gender discrimination is defined under the 1963 Equal Pay Act as occurring “when male and female workers employed in the same establishment receive different pay for ‘substantially equal’ work.” Through the social construction of gender, males and females who differ minimally in biological terms are categorized into two groups that differ noticeably in appearance and opportunities (Reskin, Women and Men at Work, 1994). Doing gender becomes a “routine accomplishment embedded in everyday interaction…to proclaim one’s membership in on or the other [sex] category” (West & Zimmerman, 1987). Through rewards of social acceptance, society imposes upon each individual the conformity to such gender roles, and coupled with gender roles comes the gendered segregation of the workplace and discrimination.

Discrimination, either conscious or unconscious, affects the wage gap through two mechanisms: the sexual division and segregation of labor with the consequent devaluation of women’s work, and the reconstruction of gender discrimination in the workplace (Reskin, Women and Men at Work, 1994). The sexual division of labor segregates occupations based on socially determined traits associated with gender. Activities are labeled as suitable for either gender, which influence employers’ expectations of appropriate employers and affects recruitment. Stereotypes of the gendered workplace are both descriptive and prescriptive, in that women “are” and “should be” acting as “gentle, submissive, empathetic ‘women’” because that is the role of a female; rather than “aggressive, dominant, scientific men,” therefore choosing lower paying “artistic careers rather than [higher paying] scientific ones” (Fine, 2010). There is an eternal balancing act of two polar roles, forcing a woman to abide by socially accepted gender roles in “appearing incompetent and nice [rather than] competent but cold,” and a man to be the woman’s foil, thus excluding the male from and forcing the female into “predominately female occupations…[such as] nursing, librarianship, elementary school teaching, and social work” (Williams, 1992). With such a marginalizing process, the sexual division of labor swings the equality pendulum to favor men’s work and devaluate women’s work.

The segregation and consequent devaluation of women’s work is thus embedded within social structure and gives rise to the gender gap, as jobs that are associated with
“women’s traits” are devalued and lower paying than their male versions, as seen in the nurse and doctor discrepancy. Such a devaluation of women’s skills ultimately translates into industrial segregation, as those industries associated with supposed male traits consist of predominantly males and are higher paying. With the glass escalator driving men up into higher paying, male dominated jobs, and the glass ceiling confining women in lower paying, female dominated jobs, the gender gap remains stagnant. As seen in both Figure 1 and Figure 2, women in higher power, “male” jobs, such as financial managers, have a higher pay gap of 34%, compared to those in “female” job, such as nursing, at a 4% gap.

Figure 1: The Gender pay gap in median weekly earnings among full-time workers, selected occupations, 2011 (AAUW, 2012).

Gener Pay Gap

Figure 2: United States Pay Gap between Men and Women, 2010 (The New York Times, 2010).

NYT US Pay Gap

Accompanying the industrial segregation of the sexes, workplace employer and employee interactions reinforce occupational segregation through gender discrimination leading to the wage gap. Discrimination is in the hands of employers, as they integrate various policies in job recruitment processes and evaluate work for salary determination (Dobbin, 2011). Whether intentional or unintentional discrimination, employers may evaluate work and pay without keeping in mind comparable worth, and recruit individuals based on perceived productivity for the specific job. This is aligned with the socially constructed gender roles and the labeling of activities as suitable for either male or female, the basis of industrial and occupational segregation. Employees are therefore attracted to such segregated jobs, essentially “choosing” their occupation based on where they will be hired. Even within such occupations, women may not necessarily receive equal work for equal pay as work evaluation and salary determination may be discriminatory in itself (England & Dunn, 1988). In this respect, the gender gap is refueled as men continue dominating higher paying jobs in addition to females continue receiving less pay for equal work. Through the sexual division of labor and the consequent devaluation of women’s work, along with the construction of gender on the job via the interaction of employers and employees, discrimination in the workplace is reinforced, segregation persists, and the gender wage gap remains at 23%.

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