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Dissecting the gender pay gap

When all external stimulus is accounted for, the gender wage gap still permeates every job a woman holds

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When it comes to the pay gap, there’s no disputing facts: Women earn a mere 82 cents of what men bring home in their paychecks.

Yet some might argue that women earn less because of career choices we have made or because we aren’t willing to make the sacrifices that men make to propel our professional careers.

Others may say men are just better negotiators so they can command higher salaries.  In other words, it’s our fault that the pay gap exists because we are obviously not making the right career choices or cultivating the right skills.

The truth is the gender pay gap exists for a myriad of complex reasons. Some are rooted in history. Others are rooted in discrimination and systemic barriers that keep women from higher earnings. Societal norms, childcare responsibilities and our own discomfort with negotiation tactics also contribute to the problem.

We can’t truly tackle the gender pay gap if we don’t understand it. Here are some of the reasons the pay gap exists and what we can do to lessen its impact.

See related: Closing the gender pay gap

Measuring the gender pay gap: controlled vs. uncontrolled

There are two ways of looking at the pay gap: The uncontrolled pay gap compares the median incomes of all working women and men regardless of the type of jobs they have or other factors. So, among all working women and men, women, on average, make 82 cents for every dollar made by a man.

The controlled pay gap, on the other hand, looks at how men’s and women’s salaries stack up when other factors are equal, such as when both do the same job or have the same level of experience. Even when all factors are considered equal, women are making less than their male counterparts, according to PayScale’s The State of the Gender Pay Gap in 2021.

The gap isn’t as wide as it is with the uncontrolled wage gap. In fact, the controlled pay gap shows that women earn 98 cents for every dollar earned by men in similar jobs. But the gap varies based on profession.

For example, women surgeons make 90 cents for every dollar male surgeons make, women credit analysts earn 91 cents for every dollar male credit analysts make, and waitresses bring home 78 cents for every dollar waiters make.

If you think education can help you fight the gender pay gap, think again. Women with MBAs bring home just 76 cents for every dollar earned by men with the same education level.

The plight of women of color

Women of color face unique challenges of their own. According to PayScale, women of color face a wider pay gap than white women – no matter what job level they are at.

When it comes to the uncontrolled wage gap, non-Hispanic White women make, on average, 79 cents for every dollar made by non-Hispanic White men. Furthermore:

  • Asian American women make 85 cents for every dollar.
  • Black women earn 63 cents for every dollar.
  • Native American women make 60 cents for every dollar.
  • Hispanic women earn 55 cents for every dollar.

Disparities also exist when women of color hold the same position as white men. For example, American Indian and Alaska Native women executives make only 91 cents for every dollar made by white men in similar roles, PayScale notes.

Discrimination and systemic racism are partly to blame. A 2018 PayScale study found that while all races are just as likely to ask their boss for a raise, women of color are 19% less likely than white men to get it.

“Gender and racial bias are real,” says AmyJo Mattheis, CEO of Pavo Navigation Coaching in San Francisco. “While there is a stated desire to change this reality, it’s going to take a minute. Look at what is real for you in the moment from a place of observational truth rather than judgment. That allows for action rather than the stuck energy of blame, victimization and separation.”

If you feel like you’re not getting fair opportunities, speak up, says Kimberly B. Cummings, a career expert and author of “Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning into a Career You’ll Love.” Help your employer understand how you’d like to be appreciated. Are you looking to be selected for key projects? Are you seeking to be considered for a promotion? Initiate a career conversation with your manager to discuss your contribution to the workplace and where you’d like your career to go.”

However, if that doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to look for another employer who can better recognize your value and offer new opportunities.

See related: Overcoming the pay gap as a woman of color

‘Women’s work’ and other harmful stereotypes

When it comes to the lack of financial respect given to women’s contributions in the workforce, history plays a major role.

In an article written by former Chair of the Federal Reserve Board Janet Yellen, she describes how women in the past were likely to be uneducated, as they nixed the workforce to marry, keep house and raise children. Though there were increasing opportunities for women between 1930 and 1970, “most women still expected to have short careers, and women were still largely viewed as secondary earners whose husbands’ careers came first,” Yellen wrote.

In addition, certain professions – often lower-paying ones – began to be associated with women’s work, such as teaching, nursing and serving as a home health aide.

Why are we as women more likely to choose these professions? Society likely plays a role. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s 2016 report Women’s Work and the Gender Pay Gap, girls are often steered toward certain professions at an early age.

For example, parents were found to be more expecting of their sons to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields than their daughters. Not surprisingly, men make up 52% of the workforce but hold 73% of STEM jobs.

Some women seek out lower-paying work for more practical reasons. Many higher-paying jobs require workers to put in long hours to climb the corporate ladder to success. As the primary caregivers for children and even aging parents, women often can’t devote that many hours to work or need a more flexible schedule to accommodate the demands of their family obligations.

A study by 24/7 Wall Street found that women face a pay gap both in male-dominated fields and female-dominated fields. For example, selling securities is a male-dominated field and women earn 64.3% of what men in the field make. On the other hand, more than half of real estate brokers are women, yet women earn 70.6% of what male brokers bring in.

The pandemic has set women back even more. Women held 5.3 million fewer jobs at the beginning of February 2021 than they did in February of 2020, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. On top of that, in February of 2021, the participation rate of women in the labor force was only 55.8%, which is where it was more than 30 years ago back in April 1987.

Many women were forced to leave their jobs in order to care for children who were stuck at home virtual learning. Others had their jobs lost or careers stalled due to the COVID-19 crisis. However, the pandemic may also present an opportunity for women in the long-term.

A June 2020 survey by S&P Global Market Intelligence found that 67% of companies will allow employees to work from home either on a long-term basis or permanently. For women who need to stay close to home due to family obligations, more flexible working arrangements can give them new opportunities to pursue higher-paying jobs.

How to get paid your worth

While the deck may be stacked against women, that doesn’t mean we can’t earn our fair share. We just have to be smart about it.

We must tout our achievements

A 2019 study found that when judging job applicants, employers valued leadership potential more than leadership performance in male candidates. However, in female candidates, the opposite was true, as employers valued leadership performance over leadership potential. That means in women candidates, employers were looking for proof that they could do the job, while they were willing to give male candidates the opportunity to grow into the job.

While unfair, women can use that knowledge to their advantage, says Marc Cenedella, founder of professional resume writing company Leet Resumes. “Just like selling any product, the more buyers know about its features and benefits, the more they’ll want to buy and the higher price they’re willing to pay. It’s no different for your career. Future bosses pay more for more impressive, fact-driven, demonstrated success professionals.”

Cenedella suggests that a fact-driven resume can help women stand out and potentially command a higher salary. In addition to explicitly including promotions in your work history, he recommends using phrases that describe your accomplishments. “Frame your bullet points with success verbs – grew, shrank, increased, optimized – so that your capabilities shine through,” he says.

We must know our strengths

Humility has its place, but it’s not in the workplace. It’s imperative that we learn to appreciate all the value that we have to offer. That means taking the time to do a self-assessment of our skills and articulating what we do well.

“Advocating for yourself in the workplace stems from understanding your professional brand and the gifts you bring to the workplace,” says Cummings. “Your salary is in exchange for the value, expertise and insights you will be bringing to the table. So, when you’re advocating for yourself, it’s important that you’re acknowledging the expertise that you bring to the table.”

We must learn to negotiate

Negotiation isn’t a skill you’re born with; it’s one you learn. If playing hardball doesn’t come easy for you, there are courses designed to help women become better advocates for ourselves.

For example, Harvard Business School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology both offer executive courses in negotiation.

We must prepare to talk compensation

Don’t leave the conversation to chance. Practice what you intend to say with a trusted friend and make sure the vocabulary affirms your value, skill, and is rooted in confidence and strength, says Mattheis.

“You do not need to prove anything. They are talking to you because they already know you are valuable.”

In search of allies

The fight for equity in women’s pay is not a battle that must be fought alone. There are roles for women who have achieved pay equity and men who wish to help in this worthwhile effort, as well.

Allies can get educated on the issue. Just because you’re not affected by the pay gap doesn’t mean you don’t need to know about it. Do your research and learn how women at all professional levels are impacted.

Allies can advocate for better laws. If you’ve never been interested in politics, here’s one reason why you should give it a second look: Laws can help us fight the gender pay gap.

Earlier this year, a bill was passed in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives that makes it easier for workers to sue an employer for wage discrimination and mandates that businesses provide information on their compensation practices. The bill has yet to be voted on in the Senate. Pay attention to where lawmakers stand on the gender pay gap and vote for representatives that are willing to fight for women’s rights.

Allies can support underpaid co-workers. If a colleague confides in you that she’s underpaid, not only can you be a listening ear, but you can let her practice what she will say when she negotiates her next raise.

Allies can share salaries. If you really want to shed a light on the issue of pay inequality, share salary information so women can use it as a negotiation tool. Start a spreadsheet and ask colleagues to post salary information anonymously so everyone can benefit from the knowledge.

A ray of hope

There is one bright spot in the march toward pay equity. For younger women, the pay gap is smaller than for their older counterparts.

In 2019, women between the ages of 16-24 earned 89% of what men in that age range earned, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In contrast, women between the ages of 35-44 only earned 80% of what men that age earned.

With a little luck and a lot of effort, women in future generations may have to study up on women’s history to know a gender pay gap ever existed.

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