Gender Pay Gap Myths and Simple Truths
14 Nov, 2019
The gender pay gap is something that affects women all over the world. Countries like Iceland are leading the pack when it comes to closing the gender pay gap, however, on a global scale, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
In 2015, the UN reported it would take 70 years to completely close the gender pay gap at the current rate, which has slowed down immensely in recent years. Take the United States: from 1985-1994 the gap closed by 8.1%. From 1995-2004 it was 4.9% and from 2005-2014 it has slowed all the way down to 1.5%.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that given the current rate of change, the gender pay gap in the U.S. will not close until 2058. This means an entire generation of women will be losing out on a lot of money. Despite the prevalent statistics indicating otherwise, there remain many who say that the gender pay gap is a complete myth, or that it is solely the responsibility of women to make improvements.
In this article, we’ll address many of these gender pay gap myths and present important gender pay gap facts you should know. You’ll also learn how organizations can implement tools to ensure equal pay for equal work for all employees.
Refresher: What is the gender pay gap?
As a review, the gender pay gap is the difference in the median earnings between men and women. Most commonly, it calculates the middle value of the annual pay of women who work full time all year round compared to men working full-time in similar positions.
Some estimates of the gender pay gap may take additional factors into consideration, for example, weekly or hourly earnings, bonuses, position seniority, and job responsibilities may all be taken into account.
Why is there a gender pay gap?
To understand why the gender pay gap exists, we’ll have to take a step back in time and understand context. According to Emma Griffin, a history professor at the University of East Anglia, “A historical perspective allows us to see that pay is connected to much deeper questions about paid and unpaid work.”
For centuries, it was social “custom and tradition that determined” which kind of work belonged to males and which kind to females.
In fact, the gender pay gap can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt, where papyrus from the period reveals the division of labor between what was deemed men’s vs. women’s work. Those scripts also indicate much lower pay for women.
Fast-forward to Victorian-era England. Griffin says, “According to the Victorians, women were ‘naturally’ inclined towards motherhood and home, while men were ‘naturally’ destined to govern, conquer and work. And low female wages were not simply an expression of this worldview, they also helped to create it.”
During the Industrial Revolution, when the promise of lucrative wages drew more women into the factory mills, they were still paid much less than men, which all but ensured many would either turn back or remain at home to take care of household tasks.
Griffin states, “we encounter many different explanations for the ongoing gender pay gap: women work part-time; they take career breaks for family reasons; their work is low skilled; they work in the caring professions; they are under-represented in science and engineering. But these commonly cited explanations assume that pay is set according to the value of the work done in a straightforward and linear way.”
Throughout history, women have legally and socially been assigned to carry out unpaid work that still to this day remains underappreciated.
The simple truth about the gender pay gap is that it is nothing new. It is an issue that has been perpetuated for centuries. It requires not only change in legal policy and career choices to bridge the gap, but also a revision of social constructs and ideology toward women and the value of their labor.
Why does the gender pay gap matter?
Aside from preventing basic equality between men and women in the workplace, the gender pay gap has a serious financial impact on women and their households. An analysis conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research determined that in the U.S., if equal pay was achieved tomorrow, then:
- 65.9% (almost two-thirds) of working single mothers would receive a pay increase
- The poverty rate for all working women would be cut in half (8% to 3.8%)
- Poverty rates for single women would drop from 10.8% to 4.4%
- 25.8 million children would benefit from their mothers’ pay increase
- The U.S. economy would experience a $512.6 billion-dollar increase in overall income
In addition, here are some other gender pay gap facts:
- The pay gap widens with minorities. Respectively, Latina women earn 58% and black women earn 65% of what white men earn in the U.S.
- The gender pay gap widens with mothers. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in the UK conducted a report which showed that women with children over the age of 20 earn almost one-third less per hour than equally educated fathers.
- Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S., a typical working woman will earn about 590,000 less than her male counterpart over a lifetime.
The gender pay gap matters because it contributes to the number of people living below poverty lines, deprives children and families of valuable income, and gives women much less money to live on both before and after retirement (this becomes a bigger issue when we consider women typically live longer than men). Women also shoulder a greater portion of the student loan debt burden in the U.S., which means they have less money to invest and/or save for retirement.
At the end of the day, the pay gap matters because it indicates where societal power is located. When women earn less, they hold less power and decision-making authority in society.
Now that we’ve gotten most of the basic gender pay gap facts out of the way, let’s dig into the most common gender pay gap myths.
Gender pay gap myths debunked
Here are some of the biggest myths surrounding gender pay disparity between men and women.
Gender pay gap myth #1: women are not confident enough to negotiate their salaries
Women often negotiate salary less and request raises less than their male counterparts because they experience negative outcomes when they do. Multiple studies have investigated this issue and found that the “social cost” of negotiating pay is greater for women than it is for men. In instances when women tried to negotiate, they were penalized by evaluators for doing so.
As touched on in previous sections, the negative outlook on women who negotiate pay versus men is a problematic cultural norm that has to change before women can be treated equally in negotiations.
Gender pay gap myth #2: women take time off to be mothers therefore, in the long run, they lose experience and earn less.
This myth is actually partially true, which we will investigate. Many gender pay gap critics who acknowledge the gender pay gap does, in fact, exist say that it’s due to the inevitable fact that women take career breaks to have and raise children. And in fact, this is true.
ONS data shows that the gender pay gap is relatively low for full-time employees between the ages of 18 and 39. However, at the age of 40 the gender pay gap widens and peaks at the age of 50 to 59. When both full- and part-time employees are taken into consideration, the pay gap increases as early as age 30 (part of key childbearing years). Similarly, in Denmark, childbearing accounts for up to 80 percent of the gender wage gap.
But the ‘motherhood pay gap’ is more complicated than time and experience lost. Here are some of the issues with this theory:
- Men also have children but data shows there is no comparable salary drop for them.
- Public opinion data in 2012 from Pew Research revealed that 12% of those surveyed think mothers of young children working full-time is ideal while 70% think fathers of young children working full-time is ideal. This exhibits a clear gender bias.
- Pay gaps still exist even for non-mothers. A 2009 study showed that female MBA graduates earned $115,000 out of school while men earned $130,000. Nine years later, men were earning 60% more than women.
- Similarly, the Department for Education in the UK shows new female graduates can expect to earn £1,600 less than their male counterparts.
- Women who are mothers routinely face workplace discrimination and ‘pay penalties’ in comparison to non-mothers. It is often assumed they will be less dedicated to their jobs, while the opposite seems to be true for fathers in the workplace.
While the motherhood pay gap does account for a good portion of the overall gender pay gap, data has shown that the gender pay gap persists regardless of whether motherhood is part of the equation. It is an issue that can be related back to social norms of women being expected to be the main caretakers of children (and therefore perceived as less dedicated at work) whereas men are expected to be the main reliable breadwinners.
Gender pay gap myth #3: Women routinely choose lower-paying careers than men
This is another myth that holds truth. Today, women are just as educated (if not more so) than their male counterparts, yet they still earn less.
It is true that more women tend to go into care-related work than men in most countries. For example, most nurses are women and most engineers are men. But why is this? Most research points to gender stereotypes learned by both males and females starting from a young age. In addition, males and females are likely to go where there will feel the most “social belonging.” For example, if an engineering program at a university is nearly all-male, it may affect a woman's decision to be part of that program. After all, work has been gendered throughout history and cultural norms can be hard and slow to change.
Many argue that if more women simply went into STEM roles, then this would help the wage gap decrease. But in fact, a 2018 survey by New Scientist revealed that women in STEM still earn 20% less than men. Plus, the theory that women naturally possess less aptitude for science has been repeatedly disproven.
If we compare apples to apples, the data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that men consistently earn more than women in nearly every occupation, STEM or otherwise.
Gender pay gap myth #4: Men work more hours than women
While it is true that women make up the bulk of part-time workers, most research makes a point to compare male full-time workers with female full-time workers for accuracy. Just like the other myths on this list, it’s not as simple as the number of hours worked.
On average, men work longer hours than their female counterparts, however, studies show that women are still putting more hours toward unpaid housework than men. What is important is the value placed on different kinds of labor and social-influenced gender norms.
Gender pay gap myth #5: There is no gender pay gap
Is the gender pay gap real? This is one of the more extreme myths perpetuated by certain groups. Of course, there should always be a level of scrutiny applied to any study or statistic. For example, general averages and median numbers of gender pay gap analysis may not take into account things like:
- The reduced work hours resulting from time taken to perform unpaid domestic work
- Shortened careers from breaks taken to raise children
- Age group and previous work experience
- Job occupation and industry segregation
- Social bias against women in leadership
The information repeatedly reveals across the board that there is real gender bias that exists between men and women and the perceived value each brings to the workplace. We know the pay gap exists, but what’s important is to drill deeper into more data points to get a comprehensive look at gender pay issues. Only then can societies begin to effectively close the pay gap.
What can your organization do about the gender pay gap?
The gender pay gap will not evaporate on its own. It is the responsibility of companies, employees, and individuals to change societal beliefs and norms toward gendered pay.
To start, workplace attitudes and culture need to change. Companies should make efforts to ensure more women are considered eligible for senior roles, provide transparency around pay and promotions, and encourage men and not just women to use parental leave. We have a full post here on how organizations can work to better tackle pay gaps within their own organization (complete with a how-to on getting started).
At Heartpace, our robust software contains a pay feature that makes identifying, reporting, and fixing pay discrepancies easier than ever before. Learn more here.
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