The Wage Gap: Persistent As Always
By: Erin Muehlhausen
Last week, a friend of mine called to tell me that she had experienced the wage gap firsthand, and was completely taken aback. This woman is highly capable: she graduated from UGA, quickly gained employment, and found herself getting raises and promotions at work within the first year. She recently discovered that her raises had been, in her mind, a joke. She ascertained that several of her male coworkers had been hired making almost as much money as she did after her raises, and making significantly more than she had been when initially hired. These young men had no further qualifications, or a difference in hours worked, yet they came into the same job with as much compensation as their superior.
It fell upon me to tell her that this disparity is more than typical, and that it was likely company policy. She debated speaking to her boss, but since wage disclosure is discouraged in the workplace, she felt that she or her coworkers might be fired for even knowing each other’s rate of compensation. While there has recently been a push for a mandatory wage disclosure law, it is far from becoming an actuality, and her fear was valid- disclosure is a terminable offense at many companies. It was upon this event that I decided, no matter how commonplace this occurrence is, its effects on the lives of women need to be given continuous attention.
For young people especially, the gender wage gap may seem like one of those things that happens, but isn’t an issue that would necessarily have a direct personal impact. Unfortunately, this mindset does carry some merit. The large-scale wage gap breakdown is as follows: for every dollar a Caucasian male earns, Caucasian women earn 77 percent to that dollar, African American women earn 64 percent, and Latina women earn 56 percent. While this is a startling differential, the gap narrows for women who are single, never married, and without children — more often than not, young women. These women earn 96 percent of a male’s income, so for many of those that fall into this category, the pay gap appears to be a distant obstacle. However, even for women who are fresh out of college and without any familial obligations, inequity in wages earned is highly prevalent.
The facts on why the wage gap exists are fairly ambiguous. Sixty percent of the wage gap explanation has been broken down into experience (10 percent), occupation (27 percent), and union status (4 percent). The remaining forty percent of the gap is deemed to be “unexplained.” Much of this inexplicable disparity is actually due to gender discrimination in the workplace. Women are still, despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, being systematically cheated for their efforts in the workplace simply because of their gender. This discrimination also accounts for a large portion of the occupational factors, as the occupations women hold have hardly changed since the 1960s. However, even women in high-paying positions are struck by the wage differential; female doctors (after other factors such as experience and qualifications are controlled) make $17,000 less than men annually.
Possibly the most troubling of the causes attributable to the gap is the evidence behind the experience factor in wage-gap statistics. Wage disparity regarding experience is most often explained by the assertion that women have to take increased time off work in comparison to men. These leaves are predominantly caused by familial obligations. Given that women are biologically selected as child-bearers, they are frequently forced to leave employment for prolonged periods of time when pregnant, thereby losing what is classified as experience.
The United States is severely falling behind the developed world in the parental leave sector. In the ranking of the number of working women in developed countries, the United States falls in 17th place. In most other developed countries, employers and governments have instituted “family friendly” programs that allow for parental (not only maternal) leave, as well as other conditions that make balancing a family and a career an easier task for both parents.
In fact, a report by The National Bureau of Economic research notes that the lack of such family parenting programs is responsible for almost 30 percent of the decreased number of women in the U.S. workforce. American society still places familial obligation largely on the female parent — both in practice and culturally. Without a mass readjustment to the perception of parental responsibility in America, women will continue to bear the weight of parenting when it comes to their monetary compensation.
Even though the bill to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act didn’t pass this last September the wage-gap issue simply cannot fall through the cracks. It is an injustice to women, men, and families, as wages are lost and poverty persists. It is imperative that people are aware that the wage gap is a reality with serious implications, and until a major change in policy occurs, the conversation needs to continue.