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Blog Insight & Commentary

Why the Gender Pay Gap Exists, According to Research

In case you were wondering, the gap in the U.S. will close in a cool, casual 100 years

Beth Castle
Managing Editor, InHerSight

Paying woman gif

Discussion of the gender pay gap, or the difference in what women earn and what men earn, is largely centered around the data point that women on average earn 80 cents for every white man’s dollar—even when they do the same job. That means that even after a full year of equal work, women don’t earn their fair share until the beginning of April—the following year—a day marked as Equal Pay Day.

However easy that fact may be to understand on a surface level (wethinks there’s discrimination afoot!), the reasons the gender pay gap exists are much more nuanced than employers simply paying women less than men. Here are five reasons the gender pay gap exists, according to research.

1. Women dominate low-paying fields

Just as there are male-dominated fields, there are also female-dominated ones, and they’re most often “care-oriented fields” such as education, nursing, child care, and administrative work. Women don’t dominate “pink-collar” jobs because they’re better at them necessarily, but because historically, women haven’t been allowed or encouraged to pursue careers in fields like engineering and tech. This gendered split is called occupational sorting, and it causes women to earn less than men simply because jobs in teaching pay less than jobs in male-dominated fields. 

While it’s a contributor to the gender pay gap, occupational sorting can’t explain it entirely, though many who argue against the existence of a pay disparity use it to explain away concerns about discrimination, claiming women “choose low-paying fields and therefore earn less.” In fact, research shows even within fields, male- or female-dominated, there are substantial gender-linked pay discrepancies. This article on the role job choice plays in the gender pay gap delves deeper into the history and research surrounding occupational sorting. 

Read more: Why More Women Should Work Blue-Collar Jobs

2. The United States doesn’t offer universal paid parental leave

Women need to take maternity leave after giving birth, and our country’s policies do little to meet that need. Although the U.S. has the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave to some workers, ours is the only industrialized country (and one of the only countries in the world) without a national paid parental leave policy, meaning it’s up to companies to create their own parental benefits. Some do, and we applaud them. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that margin is small, with only 17 percent of companies offering paid parental leave and 89 percent offering unpaid. As a result, many working women are forced to take unpaid time away from their jobs, causing the gap between men’s and women’s pay to grow. On average, women experience a wage loss of 4 percent for each child, a phenomenon knowns as the motherhood penalty.

The stigma around men taking parental leave, paid or unpaid, widens the gap. In 2013, Rutgers University found that men who requested family leave were at a greater risk for penalties such as decreased salary, demotion, being passed over for a promotion, or being fired. Unfortunately, it’s much more common—and lucrative—for men to take short or no leaves of absence. In what’s called the fatherhood bonus, a man experiences an average 6 percent wage increase for each child he has.

3. There’s still an unequal distribution of household and child care duties

Unpaid work (caring for children, household chores, emotional labor) is still work, and it takes up more of women’s time than men’s. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women in the U.S. spend about four hours doing unpaid work every day, compared to men’s average of about two and a half hours. 

This unequal distribution is exhausting, especially in a world where dual-income households are increasingly necessary, and it contributes to women experiencing higher rates of burnout than men. It’s also a reason women are more likely to switch to part-time or less stressful, low-paying jobs. Why juggle being a top executive and a mom when you could take a pay cut and preserve your sanity? 

There are ways to mitigate this factor of the pay gap. Companies can offer flexible, judgement-free work hours or remote options, and couples can map out more equitable division of labor at home. When deciding who does what, consider the toll of each person’s job and how your family’s needs will change over time. Labor evolves.

4. Women aren’t advocating for themselves

We know from research that women aren’t advocating for themselves where it matters: the pursuit of more pay. According to a study by Glassdoor, women are 16 percent less likely than men to negotiate their salary, and in total, about half of women have never negotiated their salary at all. And when InHerSight asked women whether they’d asked for a raise in the past 12 months, 60 percent said no.

There’s also the issue of women choosing to only apply to jobs they’re completely qualified for, which causes them to miss out on higher paying opportunities (or even simply valuable job hunting and interviewing experience). Men apply for jobs when they meet just 60 percent of the qualifications, whereas women apply only if they meet 100 percent of them.

Read more: 7 Indirect Ways to Close the Gender Pay Gap

5. Gender discrimination is still *so* real

The reality is that gender discrimination still factors heavily into how women are treated at work, especially in terms of pay. Women are paid less than their male peers for doing the same work (even though it’s illegal), or they’re promoted less often because they’re women, mothers, pregnant, or any number of gender-related reasons.

This discrimination goes unchecked for multiple reasons: Our work culture discourages employees from discussing pay with one another—InHerSight found that only 36 percent of women have had a male collegue tell them he makes—so while we may know that the pay gap exists in general, individuals may not be aware of their personal pay gap. Plus, few companies have full or partial pay transparency policies, which reveal discrepancies in pay. Tangentially, boys’ club cultures also often devalue and exclude women and minorities in male-dominated industries.

There are measures in place to protect women, which you can read about here. And if you find out a male peer makes more than you, this article will help you address the issue. 

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