At 20%, gender gap improves but closing slowly

by Jeff Della Rosa ( 208 views 

U.S. women working full-time were paid 80% of what men earned in 2015, according to data released Wednesday (March 15) by the U.S. Census Bureau. With the 20% wage gap, men are earning about $10,000 more than women, and the gap isn’t expected to close for decades, possibly as long as 140 years.

The data is based on 2015 earnings of the 104.78 million full-time U.S. workers, and shows women earned a median salary of $40,022, while men brought in $50,119. Women accounted for more than 42% or 44.94 million of the full-time workers, while men comprise of 59.83 million.

In Arkansas the gap was slightly wider at 21%, with men earning $40,570 compared to $32,003 for women, according to the American Association of University Women. Louisiana and Wyoming have the widest gap at 32% and 36%, respectively, and New York and Delaware have the narrowest gap, both at 89%.

The gap has “actually gotten better every year, every decade,” said Terry Richard, sociologist who recently retired from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. While it has improved, “nothing’s going to happen immediately.” Society has gone through changes, but “it’s hard for us to see it in day-to-day life.”

Though the gap has been closing since when it was between 50% and 55% in the 1950s, it has started to close at a slower pace in the past five to six years, said Janine Parry, political science professor and Arkansas poll director at the University of Arkansas.

At the 2003-2013 rate, the pay gap is expected to close in 2139, according to the American Association of University Women. But at the rate it was closing between 1960 and 2013, it would be closed in 2058.

When asked how the United States is working to resolve the pay gap, Parry said, “reluctantly.”

“We already did the easy stuff,” said Parry, citing the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which was enacted to prevent wage discrimination among men and women who perform the same job. Also, colleges stopped restricting the number of women who could enroll in specific programs, such as for law, medical or Masters of Business Administration degrees.

Some states established laws requiring a fresh start with regard to how employers pay their employees and had some success, but “it’s not a zero sum game,” Parry said. “It’s expensive.” And it “fell out of favor” because of the high cost.

Rene Street, executive director for America Business Women’s Association, said the wage gap doesn’t start until women are in their 30s and develops over time. “The gap is actually larger for women of color.”

She said the organization is working to close the wage gap by discussing it and teaching employee rights, how to be an effective negotiator and to understand one’s value.

“Someday we’ll be able to achieve parity in the workplace,” Street said.

But change has been slow, said Nancy Krawczyk, vice president for partnership and engagement for Network of Executive Women. “One recent estimate says it will take 2156 to achieve gender parity (longer for women of color.)”

She said women earn less “right from the gate. They are offered lower salaries for the same positions and are promoted less.”

In its effort to close the wage gap, the Network of Executive Women works with its 103 corporate partners to “create workplaces where everyone can succeed. This means flex time, affordable childcare, parental leave…getting rid of institutional advantages and unconscious biases that favor men,” Krawczyk said. “On the individual front, we help women in retail and consumer goods by increasing their leadership skills and training them to step into higher-level positions.”

In Arkansas, the gap is slightly higher for several reasons, including the higher teenage pregnancy rate, lower pay compared to other states and a limited number of available jobs, Richard said.

Parry explained three issues causing the U.S. wage gap: sex discrimination, gender occupational patterns and the human capital explanation.

The latter encompasses three issues: until recently, women received less education than men, the thought that women take off more from work (i.e. maternity leave) and are less likely to work overtime. But now, women are more likely to graduate college than men, and the human capital explanation is becoming less of an impact on the wage gap.

“Women are the majority of college graduates, but female professionals earn less than men in almost every field,” Krawczyk said. “You have to ask why this is and when it will change.”

Looking at gender occupational patterns, it regards how women and men work in different fields. For example, 23% of chief executives are women, and 35% of lawyers are women. But 88% of registered nurses are women, and 94% of childcare workers are women.

In positions in which more men are employed, Richard said that the gap is widened by older men who make more money.

Parry said most of the jobs that women have traditionally worked in are paid at a lower rate, and this continues to hold true. In the late 1800s, more women were receiving education and becoming teachers as they would work for lower wages than men. As the bread winners, the men would need to make enough to support their family, and this became part of the American culture. Yet, the notion that men are earning more to support their family is changing as 40% of women are the breadwinners in U.S. households.

“When a woman makes less than a man for the exact same job, it’s unfair,” Krawczyk said. “It also hurts the economy because many of these female professionals are the main or sole breadwinner in their families.”

One of the changes in the wage gap by occupation was when more men joined the nursing field, and nurses’ wages started to rise, Parry said. The thought is that invite more men into a field and wages will increase.

“The third factor is flat out sex discrimination,” she said. While the Equal Pay Act was enacted to prevent this, between 10% and 30% of the wage gap is because of discrimination. Slight differences in job duties can be used to meet the requirements of the law. For example, one teacher might be paid less than another based on the sizes of classes they teach.

“The wage secrecy piece is a part of this too,” Parry said. The concern regards employers who will fire employees for discussing pay with co-workers. Employers have argued that sharing wage information could give the competition an advantage, but if co-workers don’t discuss pay, they might not find out if they are being paid unfairly. One might say why don’t women sue for better wages, but if they can’t discuss wages, they might not know to sue in the first place. However, some states have laws that will penalize companies for penalizing employees for talking about wages.

The consequences of the pay gap will have a lasting impact on women, especially when they reach retirement age. Older women are twice as likely to live in poverty as older men, Parry said. Adding to this, is that women tend to live longer than men, Street said.

While leaving 21 cents on the table might seem like “no big deal,” she said. “That compounds over a lifetime or a career.”

Gender parity won’t be achieved with existing workplace policies, Krawczyk said. “We need a new workplace that utilizes the full talent of all people, especially the female half.”

The following are some numbers from the Census Bureau report:

  • Women chief executives are paid nearly 28% less at $101,496 compared to $140,057 for men.
  • Women financial managers, nearly 38% less at $60,996 compared to $97,095.
  • Women physicians and surgeons, 31% less at $150,975 compared to $221,528.
  • Women in legal occupations earn nearly 47% less, $64,121 compared to $120,270.
  • Women dietitians and nutritionists make 17% more at $50,820 compared to $43,393.
  • Wholesale and retail buyers earn 9% more at $45,473 compared to $41,549.