The Social Causes and Political Consequences of the Gender Wage Gap
Fact: According to the United States Census Bureau, the average full-time, year-round female worker in 2009 made 77% of what her male coworker earned. Obviously, the gender wage gap exists. The “what” is not difficult to verify. However, the “why” is more problematic.
Those with a strong belief in American meritocracy often claim that the gender wage gap is caused by genuine differences between male and female workers. There are two core justifications: occupations and work patterns.
It is true that men are generally more likely to go into higher paying jobs than women. Women hold less than 25% of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs, where many expanding and lucrative careers lie. Moreover, women also take a disproportionately large amount of low-income jobs. In fact, more than twice as many women than men hold full-time jobs with earnings below the federal poverty level for a family of four. This occupational divide is often invoked to explain the differences in salary between men and women.
But it doesn’t.
As the chart above illustrates, the gender wage gap exists across almost all occupations. The chart, based on a 2010 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that women don’t make less than men just because they hold jobs in lower-paying occupations. For instance, the fact that men are more likely to become engineers in comparison to women while women are more likely to become secretaries in comparison to men is irrelevant. The gap exists in almost every industry, from manufacturing to public administration. Thus, female engineers make less than male engineers and female secretaries make less than male secretaries. While the size of the gap varies by career, its presence is constant.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research released a report last month titled “The Gender Wage Gap by Occupation.” In the report, researchers determined the gender wage gap for the 20 most common occupations for women. As the graph below illustrates, women even earned less than men in all but one of the very occupations women are most likely to hold. The gender wage gap simply cannot be explained by an occupational divide.
But what about those work patterns? Women work differently than men. Because they are typically more concerned about family and less concerned about pay than their male peers, female workers have a number of attributes that could lessen their pay relative to males. On average, women have fewer years of experience. Women normally work fewer hours. Women are less likely to work full-time. In addition, as a result of child bearing, women leave the labor force for longer periods of time than men. These differences in work patterns are also used to justify the gender wage gap.
But they don’t.
In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released the results of a comprehensive study on the gender wage gap. They found that part of the gap could be explained by work patterns. However, they also determined the size of the gap that was not caused by such factors. The study modeled the gender wage gap while controlling for such variables as years of work experience, education, hours, industry, occupation, race, marital status, and job tenure. The results of the model can be found on slide 12, page 16 of the report:
Even after controlling for those factors, women earned, on average, 20% less than men from 1983 to 2000. Admittedly, not every study has found the gender wage gap to be so large. For instance, numerous policies and regulations exist in the federal government to help promote equal pay for government workers. Thus, in another report released in 2009, the GAO determined that the gender wage gap in the federal workforce, after controlling for various factors, was only 9% in 2007. However, that is still significant. In other words, the average female federal worker getting paid $60,000 was making $5,000 less than her male counterpart. The GAO report calls that gap “unexplained.” I call it a problem.
But Republicans don’t:
In that heated exchange, GOP strategist Alex Castellanos strongly denies the claim that women get paid less than men for doing the same work. In fact, the explanations he gives for the gender wage gap include the occupational divide and differences in work patterns (see above). This denial on behalf of conservatives has a very strong impact on United States policy, particularly with respect to two recent pieces of legislation.
The first piece of legislation is the well-known Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. This statute, signed by President Obama in January of 2009, amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Previously, one could only file equal-pay lawsuits regarding pay discrimination within 180 days of the first discriminatory paycheck. Thus, if people discovered that they were being paid unfairly after 180 days on the job, they could not file a lawsuit. They could not seek justice. This law allows for equal pay lawsuits to be filed within 180 days of the most recent discriminatory paycheck instead of the first one, making it easier for victims of wage discrimination to obtain retribution. This law was not supported by conservatives. Only 4 Republicans, all of them women, voted for the legislation. There was not a single male Republican that voted for the Fair Pay Act because not a single male Republican viewed the gender wage gap as a real problem.
More recently, the discussion of the gender wage gap has become relevant due to the Paycheck Fairness Act. This legislation would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by closing loopholes, prohibiting retaliation by companies, requiring businesses to show that wage disparities are not based on gender, and making it easier for victims of wage discrimination to file lawsuits. Republicans blocked the bill in the Senate in 2010. However, Democrats plan to hold a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act in the coming weeks. The fate of this legislation depends on how the gender wage gap is viewed by both sides.