New Glass Ceilings
Mind the Gap
Over the course of their careers, wage discrimination costs women an average of $400,000 each. Progress closing that gap has slowed in recent years, and the gap may even widen as COVID-19 has sidelined more women workers than men.
omen in the United States enroll in college at much higher rates than men and now account for more than 55% of all undergraduate and graduate students.
So America must have beaten a symptom of gender discrimination known as the “wage gap” — a persistent finding that women get paid less for the same work than men — right?
Not even close. Imagine a gender reveal, but instead of biting into blue or pink frosting, the parents-to-be smash a piggy bank: $1 spills out if it’s a boy; 82 cents if it’s a girl.
Women who work full-time still make just 82 cents for every dollar their white, male co-workers earn, according to U.S. Census data. For most women of color, it’s worse, earning 20-30 cents less than their white female counterparts, with Latina and Native American women earning the least when compared to white men.
Wage discrimination hits families headed by single moms the hardest. The median income of households headed by a single woman in 2019 was $48,098, while households headed by a single man was $69,244, according to census bureau research. But the wage gap also affects women without children. For single women living alone, the median income was $34,612, while single men earned an average of $48,496.
When the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, women earned 59 cents to the dollar, so the wage gap has narrowed over time, but the progress is slowing down. Over the past 10 years, there’s only been a five-cent increase, and it barely budged from 2018 to 2019, the data shows. Evidence shows that COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has disproportionately affected women and could widen the gap in the future. .
“I don’t think that we’ve made a ton of progress in getting at the core issues around the gender pay gap,” Robin Riley, an assistant professor and director of Undergraduate Studies for Women and Gender Studies at Syracuse University, said.
SU is a school that’s all too familiar with its own wage gap.
“At the root of all of this is a belief in a binary system of gender and a belief that anatomy either prepares you well or not well to do certain kinds of things,” Riley said.
She said women are segregated into professions such as teaching and nursing, which are historically underpaid and not as valued in society. When women do enter male-dominated professions, they are paid less than their male colleagues at the same level.
“That has to do with this kind of legacy of this idea about men deserving what they call a ‘family wage,’ like the idea that men will be supporting entire families as if women are not,” she said. “That’s an old, old idea from our history, but of course it wasn’t true then and it certainly isn’t true now.”
The most common explanation for the gender wage gap is that women take time off work to raise children. But Emma Dreher, a third-year doctoral candidate at SU, said society’s gender norms teach women that they’re expected to take on the bulk of family responsibilities.
“This theory basically blames women’s lack of progression on productivity differences and differences in job experiences relative to their male colleagues, and this is a very problematic metric when we talk about the gender pay gap,” Dreher said.
This is called the “motherhood tax,” Dreher said, and it stunts women’s career growth and creates an unconscious bias in the workplace culture. She added that when men make the same choice to have a family or take parental leave, it doesn’t affect them in the same negative way.
“This issue here is that even when women take leave to be with children if they just had a baby or to take family leave to take care of familiar responsibilities at home, they see this kind of permeating effect after they get back,” she said. “Their experience is stunted, their pay is stunted, their workplace progression is stunted.”
Research from the University of Massachusetts found that a woman’s salary decreased 4% for every child she had, and employers believed mothers worked less and were more distracted while at work. On the other hand, a man’s salary increased more than 6% when they had and lived with children, and employers viewed fathers as more stable and committed to work because they had a family to provide for.
“She’s got to fight to get back to where she was before she left,” said Janice Brown, president of the New York chapter of the American Association of University Women. “It’s like a stigma is placed on a woman when she leaves work to start a family. … It’s like starting back over from the bottom.”
In her career, Brown has faced the double negative effect of the gender wage gap as a Black woman. Growing up, her parents taught her that education and a college degree was key, even though educated Black women are historically undervalued. She currently works for the federal government and advises that women work to negotiate a fair wage.
When she was first offered her current position, the hiring managers told her salary before salary had even been discussed.
“I emailed back saying we didn’t negotiate or discuss the salary, and they were like, ‘Oh, well, we pay’ then they gave the salary range,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Well, I feel like I’m bringing xyz to the table and I can do this, this and this, and I have experience, and I’m [asking for] this amount of money.’”
Her friends and family didn’t think she’d be able to negotiate a higher salary, but she did.
Brown recommends that women get negotiation training and suggested the one offered by the American Association of University Women. Her advice: “Never undersell yourself, because there’s something that you’re bringing to the organization,” she said. “They interviewed you because they saw something in you that was appealing.”
Riley said she experienced the wage gap at SU. She was one of more than 200 faculty who signed a letter in The Daily Orange in April 2018, calling on the university to address the inequities found in the December 2017 Faculty Salary Report. Women faculty earned as little as 77 cents on the dollar compared to male faculty, according to The Daily Orange. As a result of the report, the university allocated money to the deans of each college to individually address the inequities. In the advertisement, the women faculty asked the university to take a more active role in overseeing how funds are distributed in a standardized way and to provide transparency.
Riley said the report wasn’t news to her.
“We already had conversations amongst ourselves and knew that that was the case,” she said of the wage gap at SU. “So for the university to confirm it, not even to the degree that we believed it was completely accurate, but to confirm it and then to not really take very much action is a little bit frustrating — more than a little bit actually.”
Riley said SU’s pay gap demonstrates the idea of occupational segregation.
“It’s the kind of systemic problem that you can’t put a bandaid on,” she said. “You have to sort of start from the beginning and say ‘why is that the faculty in the sciences make so much more money than the faculty in the humanities?’”
Without pay equity, women overall stand to lose more than $400,000 over the course of a 40-year career. The gender pay gap impacts a woman’s ability to repay her student loans — women currently hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in the U.S. — and a woman will receive less in Social Security and pensions when she retires.
Several states, including New York, are implementing “salary history ban” laws, as the salary history question is a tactic used by employers to justify lower pay rates. And basing a new hire’s salary on their previous pay might inadvertently carry forward discrimination from a previous job into a new one. This law took effect in New York on Jan. 6, 2020. The legislation bans the salary history question in private and public sector jobs. Employers cannot seek salary history information from an applicant’s current or former employer and cannot base an offer on past wages if the salary history is known.
“Employers should be looking at the quality of the candidate that’s applying for the job; it shouldn’t be about how much they made before,” said Sen. David Carlucci (D-Rockland), one of the bill’s sponsors. “I believe now people will be able to spend more time talking about their qualifications, talking about their experience, talking about the value that they bring to the organization.”
James Bessen, executive director of the Technology and Policy Research Initiative at Boston University School of Law, found that history-ban laws are helpful in closing the wage gap, particularly for women and Black workers. =
“When an employer has access to salary information, it means that the employer can identify which workers have been paid low amounts in the past and they can make offers to them that are also low,” Bessen said. “When prospective employers don’t have that knowledge that they’re receiving low pay, then they can’t take advantage in salary bargaining.”
Riley said she’s skeptical of the law and believes it’ll take a lot more than this legislation to achieve pay equity.
“It kind of presumes that the future employer is interested in fairness, that it’s interested in undoing historical wrongs, and that’s in contradiction to what American capitalism does,” she said. “That one law isn’t going to undo the entire capitalist system.”
Alabama and Mississippi are the only two states that don’t have any equal pay protections, but laws in the other 48 states, as well as the District of Columbia, vary in scope and strength.
Many groups such as the AAUW and ACLU are advocating for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would update the Equal Pay Act of 1963. One of the updates would require employers to demonstrate that wage differences are based on factors other than gender — a loophole in the current Equal Pay Act. It would also make the salary history ban federal law. Even though the House passed the bill with bipartisan support, the Senate has not yet taken action on the bill.
“They’re just sitting there,” Brown said. “We need to be advocating to our legislators that you need to be voting on these.”
Other pay-equity experts interviewed also advocated for more organizing and political engagement on the issue.
“We have to look at not only who’s doing the hiring and promoting in companies, which we know are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, but also look at the people legislating at the highest level of government who have the potential to perhaps institute changes to pay equity legislation or the Equal Rights Amendment,” Dreher said. “The more inclusive these highest-level decision-making structures become, we might see more of a shift in terms of these biases.”
Deconstructing The Divide
Brown and Riley agree that there needs to be more collective action to close the gender pay gap.
“We don’t have enough men voicing their concerns and supporting us in this fight,” Brown said. “We gotta bring men to the table and say, ‘You’re right. These women are right.’”
Riley also believes more women need to be involved to make it a movement. “An acknowledgment,” she said, “that we are all sisters in a way.”
She added, “Even though the wage gap differently affects us depending on our race, depending on our ability — whether we’re disabled — we’re all similarly affected in the sense that none of us really make what we should.”