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What Role Does Job Choice Play in the Gender Pay Gap?

“Occupational sorting” is often used to explain away unequal pay, but historically, it’s been society, not women, that's dictated career paths

working women WWII

By Emily Weyrauch (@emily_weyrauch) and Sarah Sheppard (@sarahsheppardwriter)

Often, when people hear statistics about the gender pay gap—namely, the fact that, on average, women make about 80 cents per every white man’s dollar—skeptics try to explain it away. One of the most common ways they do so is by saying women choose different careers than men do (ie. education over engineering), so they don’t make as much money.

This is known as “occupational sorting,” and there’s a lot of research that explains why selecting a high-paying career over a lower-paying one doesn’t remove the pay gap. Studies show that even if you compare men and women using the same factors (age, experience, title, etc.), the gap lessens, but still exists.

In fact, Dr. Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says a variety of factors affect which careers women choose. Read on to learn why the relationship between job choice and the gender pay gap is long-standing and much more complicated than it seems.

A History of Discrimination

It is true that women often choose different jobs than men. But a person’s job choice is not their choice alone, says Gould, who researches and writes about wages and inequality. “That ‘decision’ is made by years of discrimination, societal norms, and other forces outside a woman’s control,” she says.

Historically, women have always held lower-level, supplemental roles to men’s—not always because they chose those careers, but because that was the way things were done. They worked in textile mills but never ran them. They typed up meeting notes but never led the meetings. They were cooks, nannines, schoolteachers, and maids, but never mayors, business owners, or, god forbid, engineers.

Read more: What Recent Research on Sexism in the Economics Field Doesn’t Say

Then, during World War II, many men went overseas to serve, and a gap in the American workforce needed to be filled. So women (primarily, white women) started to move into traditionally male-dominated fields, working in defense plants, factories, and shipyards. (Hence Rosie the Riveter.)

By 1945, one in four married women worked outside the home. But after the war ended, things quickly reverted to their pre-war state. Women were pushed back into more “feminine” roles as clerical workers, secretaries, teachers, and social workers now that men could fill the other positions again.

Flash forward to today, and that sexism that has, for decades, blocked women from male-dominated careers still shapes much of American work culture, and Gould says it affects how young women envision their futures.

Many girls are told they are not good at math both directly and indirectly throughout their childhood, so when it comes time to take harder math classes or pursue math-related careers, they don’t believe they’re capable. It’s no wonder fields like tech struggle to find women to fill open positions—girls stop entering that workforce years before they even start looking at colleges.

The role of mentors is a big factor, too. Gould says girls grow up with role models—mothers, aunts, teachers—who shape their idea of what they can become. But with only 24 of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies being female, it’s likely they’re not finding many high-power working women to emulate. (Say it with us: If you can see it, you can be it.)

Read more: How to Find a Mentor in the Age of #MeToo

Expectation Becomes Reality

Even when women do find careers that make them happy, whether in female- or male-dominated fields, they often face different expectations simply because of their gender.

When an employee decides to have a child, for instance, the way supervisors treat them can vary dramatically. “Men are thought to be more committed to their job because they now have to support a family,” Gould says, adding that they may be given more opportunities now that they’re dads-to-be. Researchers call this the fatherhood “bonus” or “bump,” and it can even be as blatant as a raise or promotion, not just more responsibilities.

Pregnant women or new moms, on the other hand, are often met with skepticism around their commitment to work and are assumed to seek fewer opportunities. This is known as the “motherhood penalty,” a phenomenon that causes moms to earn less than women without children.

Read more: How Ending the Motherhood Penalty Benefits All

Why does that matter in terms of occupational sorting? Well, women are more likely to leave, say, a high-paying office gig if they’re not being promoted and they simply don’t have the time to work 60-plus hours per week. They might choose to take a pay cut for a job that has better hours and respects their decision to become a mom.

Pay Gaps Within Fields

Occupational sorting aside, Gould says the gender pay gap still exists in both female-dominated and male-dominated fields, so you’re going to deal with unequal pay in whatever track you choose.

“Look within those female-dominated fields, such as preschool or kindergarten teachers—women are actually paid less than men,” Gould says. According to the US Department of Labor, the top-three most common careers for women are elementary school teacher, registered nurse, and receptionist/administrative assistant. Yet in all of those positions, women’s average weekly earnings are still lower than men’s—in teaching specifically, women earn 88.9 percent what men do.

Care-related work in general is undervalued in society, Gould says, and that’s evident in looking at salaries of professionals in nursing and early childhood education.

Within male-dominated industries, you’ll find a similar story in terms of the pay gap. In medicine, one of the highest paying fields, female primary care physicians earn approximately $39,000 less than their male counterparts.

In these male-centered industries, women also deal with more adversity, more discrimination, less opportunity, more self-doubt, and having a harder time trying to succeed than their male colleagues. They often feel the need to constantly prove themselves or overcome the old-school “boys’ club” mentality. Trying to get ahead in spite of the mansplaining, sexual harassment, or male judgement isn’t just a challenge, it’s disruptive. It stops many women from pursuing the roles they might want.

Read more: 15 Ways to Crush Self-Doubt at Work

What Can Be Done

In order to address the gender pay gap, we must address gender bias in the workplace, which starts long before any man or woman accepts a job offer. It starts in school, when girls are just starting to learn math, science, reading, and writing skills.

We must encourage young girls, especially girls of color, to pursue male-dominated degrees, male-dominated careers, and male-dominated positions. This means, creating more opportunities (with scholarships, with programs), and encouraging more mentorship (from both men and women), and changing company policies to better support and train women to become leaders.

Read more: It’s Hard to Change Careers—These Companies Are Making It Easier

There are companies that do this already, and we’ve seen progress from their work: More women are earning college degrees than men, more women are joining the workforce than ever before, and more than 40 STEM organizations exist for girls and women, with many companies encouraging women to work in STEM fields.

Yet still, in 2017, only 6.6 percent of women worked full-time in male-dominated occupations. That means we have our work cut out for us, but Gould says our economy will benefit if we actually take time to foster those up-and-coming women. “When women are paid more, you’re going to get higher quality results” she says.

This article is part of InHerSight’s month-long coverage of equal pay. Timed with Equal Pay Day, the series looks at how the pay gap affects women of all backgrounds and in all industries.

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