Since women first entered the workforce at the beginning of the twentieth century, there have been many uphill battles fought in order to acquire the same opportunities as men. These rights included women’s suffrage, the right to use contraceptives, a wife being able to own property separately from her husband and the privilege for women to attain higher education. One issue that remains significantly problematic in the United States is that women’s earnings in the workplace are not yet equal to that of men. Although women have advanced in both their education and work experience, the wage gap has closed very little in comparison. So the question is, how can this gender wage gap be resolved?
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While there has been notable progress toward greater equality and pay parity since the mid-twentieth century, the fact is that women in the United States still only earn 80.5 cents on the dollar compared to what a man earns (Graf). Over the past several decades, there has been considerable discussion and legislation in an effort to find solutions to this ongoing problem. While the gender pay gap has lessened as a result of these efforts, the nation certainly has a long way to go in order to achieve pay parity. If change continues at the same slow pace that it has for the past fifty years, then pay parity will not be reached until the year 2059 for white women, 2119 for black women and 2224 for Hispanic women (“Pay Equity & Discrimination”).
There are diverse positions on this subject and the reasons behind the pay disparity are largely debated. People typically have one of two general opinions: some believe the wage gap exists for justifiable reasons and others believe the disparity is a result of discriminatory views of women. If individuals on both sides of this issue will contribute to productive, open-minded discussions, this will help move America closer to discovering a resolution to this problem.
Some people believe that the wage disparity is simply due to the differences in life choices that women and men make. Men choose to pursue their careers while women choose to care for their families. Further, because women are the likely caregivers in a family, they will naturally miss more work than their male counterparts, thus choosing to give up advancement opportunities or job promotions. In one article which expounds on this idea, author Matthew Cochran states that “a 40-hour work week and a 60-hour work week are not equal work…[and]…a career punctuated by long pauses and an uninterrupted career are not equal work.” Cochran reasons that a woman who is not at work for as many hours will obviously earn less than the man who chooses to be at work. He also believes that American women should embrace the duty of motherhood and stop viewing their families as a burden.
Another argument explaining the wage gap is that the raw data for the pay gap cannot be considered without looking at other various contributory factors. One such factor is that women choose to enter lower-paying college majors and careers than men. This may be because women are more likely to accept jobs with lower wages as a tradeoff for more flexible leave policies. It could also be because there are still some fields that are dominated by men, such as construction and engineering. “Occupational segregation is a primary contributor to the lack of significant progress in closing the wage gap” (“Pay Equity & Discrimination”). Although women have made great strides in taking on jobs that were previously done almost exclusively by men, there is still much progress to be made in regards to the gender integration of work. One survey concluded that when such factors as these were accounted for, the hourly wage gap decreased to about five cents on the dollar (Kessler).
It has also been argued that women are paid less than men because they are not as likely to negotiate for a pay increase. Hannah Riley Bowles is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, and also instructs women regarding career and pay negotiations. Bowles notes that numerous studies demonstrate that when women negotiate for raises, their employers are left with a negative impression of them. Because women fear the backlash that asking for a pay raise might bring, they are reluctant to do such negotiating on their own behalf.
Since there are seemingly innocuous explanations for the pay gap, it is understandable how one might try to reason that the disparity is not actually problematic. However, those on the other side of this issue believe the wage gap exists, in part, because of innate discrimination against women in the American culture. During the World War II era, the government used propaganda to encourage females to enter the workforce in order to fulfill their patriotic duties. Women were essential to ensure that the country’s war efforts were successful. One well-known propagandist icon, Rosie the Riveter, was a representation of women who worked in factories (see fig. 1). The government used Rosie to symbolize female empowerment; however, even during a time when women were particularly crucial to the country’s success, their pay was less than 50 percent of what males were paid for the same work (History.com Editors).
Additionally, gender stereotypes are largely perpetuated by the media. The media’s role in defining and disseminating information to stir emotional reactions is well-known in American culture. Up until about 10 years ago, most commercials for household cleaning products, laundry detergent, and diapers featured only females performing the household and childrearing responsibilities. As the female equality movement has gained momentum in recent years, marketers have taken notice and have responded by making commercials that appeal more to this social shift. Now, instead of solely showing women in “mom” roles as caregivers and housekeepers, commercials often feature men performing these duties.
One such advertisement by Ariel, an India-based laundry detergent brand, caused quite a stir in 2016 when it was released as part of Ariel’s “#Sharetheload” campaign (see fig. 2). The opening scene shows a bewildered father watching as his adult daughter arrives home from work and begins prepping dinner, taking care of her son, doing laundry and cleaning up toys—all while she takes a phone call for her job. Meanwhile, her husband sits on the couch and watches TV. She brings her husband a cup of hot tea as he relaxes and she continues to work. The most powerful message in the ad transpires when the woman’s father writes a letter to her apologizing on behalf of himself and all other dads who have set the wrong example regarding gender roles for their children. He writes, “It’s not your job alone, but your husband’s too.” The video ends with the father’s voiceover declaring that he is going to make a conscious effort to change as he returns to his own home and promptly starts a load of laundry. While these types of commercials demonstrate a positive move toward gender equality, the American culture still has a long way to go regarding its attitude toward women in the workplace and women at home.
Another argument is that pay disparity is less about discrimination against women and more about the disadvantage of a working mother, or the “motherhood penalty” (Posner). Studies have been conducted that prove that when working women are mothers, their opportunities to advance in their careers decrease, while men’s work opportunities increase when they are fathers (see fig.3). Additionally, statistics show that women who are not caregivers earn 96 percent of what a man earns (Posner). Perhaps this motherhood penalty stems from society’s views of a woman and the opinion that the mother should be the primary caregiver in a family. One related survey was conducted asking its participants whether women should work full-time when they have young children and only 15 percent of the population answered that they should do so, while 70 percent of people responded that new fathers should work full-time (Posner).
Fig. 3. Graf, Nikki, et al. “The Narrowing, but Persistent, Gender Gap in Pay.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 22 Mar. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/03/22/gender-pay-gap-facts/.
In reality, statistics show that 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 actually participate in the labor force, and more than 75 percent of those mothers are employed full-time (DeWolf). The figures also reveal that mothers with children under 18 are the sole earners for 40 percent of households today, which has increased from only 11 percent in 1960 (DeWolf). Although today’s average American mother contributes financially to her household, society still holds antiquated views on whether mothers should even work outside of the home.
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Another astounding statistic shows that women’s share of time spent on family care is disproportionate compared to that of men. When a mother and father within the same household both work full-time, the mother spends an average of nine hours more per week on childcare or household activities than the father. Those nine hours weekly add up to 468 hours over the course of a year or approximately 59 eight-hour work days that the woman could have devoted to her job (Graf). Furthermore, a woman is more likely to take off work to tend to her family because she makes less money than her male partner, which then creates a kind of endless cycle of lower earnings for the woman.
People also argue that the gender wage gap is a result of outright discrimination in the workplace. Forty-two percent of women say they have experienced gender discrimination at work compared to only 22 percent of men (Graf). Twenty-five percent of women report that they have earned less than a man doing the same job, while only five percent of men say they have experienced this (Graf).
Many brave women have fought and won their fair share of battles for equality over the past hundred years. Two of the most influential pioneers for this cause were Esther Peterson and Lorena Weeks. Peterson was the presidential advisor to President John F. Kennedy and led the Women’s Bureau during his administration. She was responsible for gathering data and organizing the campaign that led to the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which was the first legislative attempt by the United States to address the wage gap. Lorena Weeks worked as a night telephone operator at a telephone company in 1966 while raising her three young children. She applied for a higher paying job within the company and was denied the position because she was a woman. The company gave that job to a man who had less seniority than Weeks, so Weeks sued the company and won. This was the first victory under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Cranley). Although the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and subsequent laws have helped to reduce the wage gap, statistics still show that women still earn less than men in nearly all occupations (US Census Bureau).
The effects of unequal pay reach far beyond simply affecting women as individuals. The financial effects are felt by whole families, the economy and even the United States government. “Persistent pay inequality can have far-reaching economic consequences. According to a recent regression analysis of federal data by IWPR, equal pay would cut poverty among working women and their families by more than half and add $513 billion to the national economy” (“Pay Equity & Discrimination”). Because women are not receiving equal wages for equal work, the government is losing the revenue from the income taxes that women should be paying. The only real winner from the pay gap is corporate America, which benefits greatly from the lower wages paid to women by experiencing maximized profits and minimized taxes and employer contributions to pension plans (“Why Women Don’t Deserve Equal Pay”).
Inequality also causes emotional suffering for the women who experience it.
Females are almost twice as likely as males to suffer from mental illness. One study conducted by Doctor Shoukai Yu at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health sought to discover the reason for this. Yu believes that since the major causes of depressive disorders cannot be explained solely by genetics, then attention to social inequalities should be more thoroughly researched. In her study, she used various global data from the World Health Organization, the United Nations’ World Bank databases and the Global Burden of Disease database. One of the major findings was that gender inequality was significantly associated with higher rates of depression in women, whereas previous studies had not identified this correlation between gender inequality and depressive disorders.
One possible solution to decrease the wage gap may be found in the Paycheck Fairness Act. This proposed bill would increase penalties for employers that practice wage discrimination and would help to ensure that employers are determining income based on factors other than gender. The bill would also direct federal agencies to collect data on wage discrimination as well as implement new programs to train women to better negotiate their wages (“Congress Must Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act”). The passage of this bill would close loopholes in existing legislation and could help bring America closer to pay parity.
Currently, America is ranked 78th out of 193 countries on gender equality in its legislature (Tamkin). Voting more women into leadership roles within the United States government would likely help the country work toward a solution, as exemplified in the case of Rwanda. In 1994, this African country experienced a mass genocide which caused their population to decrease, leaving only around 30-40 percent males. The shortage of men meant that women took on jobs that were previously unheard of, as they had been denied basic rights and not even permitted to speak in public. The government recognized that women would be essential for rebuilding their country and took steps to place women in positions of power. The General Monitor was also implemented to ensure that programs are compliant with the country’s overall goal of gender equality. Today in Rwanda, women hold 61.3 percent of the seats in parliament, which is the highest percentage in the world (Posner). Although the changes in Rwanda were born out of tragedy, these policies have had a lasting impact on the country’s pay gap.
Another possible solution would be to implement family leave policies for both men and women. This would reduce an employer’s likelihood to discriminate based on whether a parent will miss work to care for their family. It could also serve to redefine the gender roles in America, as men would become more expected to be equal caretakers for their families. Iceland has implemented family leave for fathers and has experienced drastic improvements in their gender pay disparity. Initially, Iceland’s response to lessen gender inequality was to grant new mothers six months of guaranteed paid maternity leave. While this was an enormous benefit for women, it primarily reinforced the idea that women are caregivers while men are not. In 2000, Iceland enacted its paternity leave policy which required that men use their family leave or lose it. This resulted in men feeling more obligated to take the leave and it also caused a shift in employers’ thinking as they began to expect that both men and women would take leave if they had a child. Iceland’s women now earn 90 cents for every dollar a man earns, which is a drastic increase since 2004 when it was only 81 cents on the dollar (Posner).
Addressing the gender pay gap in America will have positive effects not just for women, but for society as a whole. Instead of simply glossing over this issue, it is best to open-mindedly discuss and consider implementing various solutions. Voters should be mindful of the policies that are backed by their legislative representatives, individuals should re-evaluate their ideals regarding gender roles and legislative changes should be enacted to close current loopholes and create new policies. In utilizing these solutions with the common goal to close the gender wage gap, the United States will hopefully resolve the pay disparity long before the year 2059.
- Bowles, Hannah Riley. “Why Women Don’t Negotiate Their Job Offers.” Harvard Business Review Ascend, hbrascend.org/topics/why-women-dont-negotiate-their-job-offers/.
- Cochran, Matthew. “There Is No Wage Gap: Feminists Want Equal Pay for Unequal Work.” The Federalist, 8 May 2015, thefederalist.com/2015/05/06/there-is-no-wage-gap-feminists-want-equal-pay-for-unequal-work/.
- “Congress Must Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and Stop the Theft of Women’s Wages.” National Organization for Women, now.org/media-center/press-release/congress-must-pass-the-paycheck-fairness-act-and-stop-the-theft-of-womens-wages/.
- Cranley, Ellen. “12 Surprising Women from History Who Paved the Road to Equal Pay.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 2 Apr. 2019, www.businessinsider.com/women-who-paved-the-way-to-equal-pay-2019-3#lawyer-and-activist-florynce-flo-kennedy-1.
- DeWolf, Mark. “12 Stats About Working Women.” U.S. Department of Labor Blog, 1 Mar. 2017, blog.dol.gov/2017/03/01/12-stats-about-working-women.
- Graf, Nikki, et al. “The Narrowing, but Persistent, Gender Gap in Pay.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 22 Mar. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/03/22/gender-pay-gap-facts/.
- History.com Editors. “Rosie the Riveter.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 23 Apr. 2010, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/rosie-the-riveter.
- Kessler, Glenn. “President Obama’s Persistent ’77-Cent’ Claim on the Wage Gap Gets a New Pinocchio Rating.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Apr. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2014/04/09/president-obamas-persistent-77-cent-claim-on-the-wage-gap-gets-a-new-pinocchio-rating/?utm_term=.f9c5e084d842.
- “Pay Equity & Discrimination.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, iwpr.org/issue/employment-education-economic-change/pay-equity-discrimination/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIhc3_vZ394AIVeR-tBh2JCwY3EAAYAyAAEgKFT_D_BwE.
- Posner, Joe. “Why Women Are Paid Less.” Explained, season 1, episode 18, 5 Sept. 2018. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/80216752.
- Tamkin, Emily. “Ahead of International Women’s Day, U.S. Ranked 78th out of 193 Countries on Gender Equality in Legislatures.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 Mar. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/03/07/ahead-international-womens-day-us-ranked-out-countries-gender-equality-legislatures/?utm_term=.d945f9629345.
- US Census Bureau. “Jobs With the Largest Gender Pay Gaps in Finance, Sales.” The United States Census Bureau, 18 Sept. 2018, www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/05/gender-pay-gap-in-finance-sales.html.
- “Why Women Don’t Deserve Equal Pay.” DPEAFLCIO, dpeaflcio.org/programs-publications/issue-fact-sheets/why-women-dont-deserve-equal-pay/.
- Yu, Shoukai. “Uncovering the Hidden Impacts of Inequality on Mental Health: a Global Study.” Translational Psychiatry, Nature Publishing Group UK, 18 May 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5959880/.
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