Consideration on Gender-based Wage Inequality in the United States

Emily Parry

Communications and Public Relations Intern

With the settling-in of the New Year comes a stream of statistics from 2012 covering every social issue imaginable. It was when I was surfing the Three Rivers Community Foundation Pinterest site that I came across a graphic titled “Equal Education Unequal Pay” depicting the wage gap as of 2012. I’ve always understood the wage gap as women making less money than men – to be more specific, about 77 cents on the dollar for white women, 69 cents for Black women, and a dismal 57 cents for Hispanic women – but the reality of this issue is becoming all too clear as the date of my graduation from college looms nearer and my list recording job applications grows longer. How is it that in 2013, fifty years after John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, as a woman, I’m still statistically projected to make significantly less money than my male peers?

According to the National Committee of Pay Equity, the wage gap has been closing since 1963 at a rate of half a cent per year. My initial question that I asked myself through clenched teeth after being overcome with disbelief and rage was, why is this still happening? According to the group WAGE (Women Are Getting Equal), “The wage gap is the result of a variety of forms of sex discrimination in the workplace, including discrimination in hiring, promotion and pay, sexual harassment, occupational segregation, bias against mothers, and other ways in which women workers and women’s work are undervalued.” They go on to explain that, first, women are sometimes discriminated against just for being women. Second, sexual harassment causes women to leave their jobs or feel too emotionally paralyzed to ask for a promotion, raise, or even a transfer. Occupational segregation means that women dominate fields that are considered “women’s work” and are paid less for these jobs based on the dubious rationale that women are worth less than men. In terms of motherhood, many mothers feel undervalued after returning from maternity leave, and are treated as if becoming a mother somehow made them completely incapable of handling tasks they were responsible for pre-child birth. Lastly, women are blocked from promotions or their ideas are criticized (even though if a man proposed the same idea they would be taken seriously) because of past discriminatory employment practices, networks of powerful men that help other men, and stereotypical assumptions about gender roles that value men’s “strength” and devalue women’s nurturing and docile tendencies.

One of the worst things about the wage gap is that it continues to exist even though women’s education levels are quickly surpassing men’s.  In 2012 entry-level jobs, men made an average of $7,600 more than women despite the fact that women make up more than half the college population and achieve higher GPAs than their male competitors. Based on these statistics, in a 40-year career, women will miss out on $431,000 due to the wage gap and discriminatory practices, even though they outperform men academically. While these general statistics do not reflect crucial categories such as choice of major or job fields accounted for, and it’s also important to always question all statistics, the issue is clear: a wage gaps exists, it’s closing too slowly, and women as a whole are paying the price, despite academic growth, due partly to individual discriminatory acts and large-scale institutional discrimination.

While processing all of this information, I began to wonder about how women can empower themselves to close the wage gap faster than people’s opinions on women evolve into complete equality. Since it’s been fifty years and counting, I wonder if there are steps individuals can take to make sure they are not a product of overarching unfairness. Upon further research, I found that there are a number of organizations that are training women on how to improve their stance in the working world. For starters, often it’s intimidating to ask for a raise, and women more often then not avoid doing it or present themselves in a nervous, non-confident manner. It’s assumed that negotiating or taking anything other than the initial offer is unladylike or overly zealous. A study from Carnegie Mellon revealed that women are only 25% as likely as men to negotiate a pay raise.  In my many recent discussions about job searches and interviews, I’ve never even thought to ask about how to ask for a raise or how to talk about a starting salary with future employers. WAGE and the AAUW are just two organizations that began hosting workshops where they teach women how to confidently negotiate starting salaries, raises, and promotions in an informed manner. Young women learn to never settle for the first number, use ranges instead of exact numbers, and always leave room for later increases or edits to a salary or job title.

It’s workshops like these that give me confidence that people can take charge of their own futures and learn tools to battle through what seems like overwhelming injustice. While wage discrimination still runs rampant in our nation, at least there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel in terms of women improving their own occupational stances through learning tips to negotiate salaries, understanding where discrimination comes from and how to appropriately question employment practices oppressing individual growth. I can only hope that young women in my position forty years from now feel a sense of relief that they don’t have to actively pursue fairness in the work place because it’s a given instead of a battle.