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Four Things That Contribute to the Gender Pay Gap

It's not just about women getting paid less than men for the same work.
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(Photo: Steve Wilson/Flickr)

(Photo: Steve Wilson/Flickr)

You've probably heard women earn just 78 cents for every dollar that men do. The problem is not just that women earn less for doing the same jobs as men, although that happens, too. There is a whole raft of reasons why, 52 years after the Equal Pay Act, female workers in the United States don't earn as much as male ones. And to close the gender pay gap, people—and organizations—will have to work on all of them.

That's what so helpful about a new report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Researchers break down the pay gap and publish statistics about lots of important issues—part-time work, women in science and technology jobs, women in unions—so organizations can think about tackling each point separately. The report also provides a warning about what will happen if we don't try to solve some of these problems. At the rate that women's wages have risen since the 1960s, we won't have equal pay until 2058. In Wyoming, the slowest of the American states to improve, women won't earn as much as men for another 100 years.

Some pieces the report identifies:

  1. On average, the more advanced degree a person has, the more he or she will earn overall. But the pay gap is actually worst for those who have the most education. Women with graduate degrees earn 69 cents for every dollar men with graduate degrees do. That suggests the culture at the top needs work, even if everyone is earning well.
  2. Unions are effective for women and men. Both earn more than non-unionized counterparts of their gender, plus the pay gap among unionized workers is better than the national average, with women earning 89 cents for every dollar men do. Yet union membership among American workers has halved since the 1980s.
  3. Women are twice as likely as men to work part-time, which often means lower pay than a full-time job and no benefits, such as health insurance. Many part-time workers say they do it by choice, although it's always hard to tease out what people choose freely versus how societal expectations might affect them. In addition, one in five women say they had to work part-time because they couldn't find a full-time job, or had their hours cut.
  4. Women tend to work in different jobs than men do. Women—especially Hispanic, black, and American Indian women—are much more likely to have service jobs, like being a waiter, cook, or nursing assistant. Those jobs pay a median salary of just $23,000. Other jobs that require similar levels of education, such as jobs in transportation, construction, or maintenance pay a bit better, but employ far fewer women.

Women are also more likely than men to have the sort of jobs the report calls "professional and managerial"—say, a lawyer, a doctor, or teacher. Professional and managerial jobs offer higher salaries, but a bigger-than-average pay gap of 71 cents to the dollar, again pointing to the need for change among those who earn more.

When it comes to the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, women are again less likely than their male counterparts to have jobs. But, it's worth mentioning, these jobs are high-paying and are expected to grow. In fact, many groups are working on how to attract more women to STEM careers—a good sign that, should these initiatives work, they'll likely help close the gender pay gap.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to U.S. women's overall lesser earnings than men because it's not just one problem. It's going to require a lot of smaller fixes. Employers have a big job ahead of them.