What Do We Mean When We Talk About the Wage Gap?

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What Do We Mean When We Talk About the Wage Gap?

By Danielle Marse-Kapr
Senior Advocacy and Policy Associate for Economic Empowerment, YWCA USA

DanielleI talk about the wage gap a lot. Before coming to work at YWCA USA as the Senior Advocacy and Policy Associate for Economic Empowerment, I spent nearly 5 years working at YWCA Orange County (NY) developing and running programs to help women increase their incomes and close the wage gap. I often hear people on both sides of the aisle disputing the very existence of the wage gap. In honor of Equal Pay Day — the day in the year that women must work to earn what men did in the previous year — I’d like to set the record straight.

MYTH: The wage gap does not exist because women’s personal employment choices are responsible for the discrepancy.

FACT: “Pink-collar” jobs, wherein women outnumber men, tend to pay less than male-dominated jobs. Being a Certified Nursing Assistant or a Home Health Aid is really hard work. So is working as an electrician or a plumber. Yet CNAs and HHAs earn around half of what electricians and plumbers make. Occupational segregation is a real issue, but not the only cause of the gender wage gap. Women can certainly choose to pursue higher wage jobs in male-dominated fields, and this will elevate their income. However, doing so will NOT close the wage gap, as women earn less than men when they work in non-traditional jobs, and men earn more than women when they work in pink-collar jobs.

MYTH: The 77 cents data refers only to white women as compared with white men.

FACT: When all women are compared with all men, they make about 77% of what men do. However, this does not mean that there is not a racial wage gap as well. White and Asian men are the highest earning demographics, and when the statistic “77 cents to the man’s dollar” is calculated, those groups are making MORE than the total men’s average of $1. Notably, when similarly educated white and Asian men are compared, white men receive higher wages than Asian counterparts. Black and Latino men earn less than both white men and white women. Women of all races make less than their male counterparts.

MYTH: The wage gap exists because women work less hours and take time out to have kids.

FACT: The wage gap is calculated using only data from full time, year-round workers. The wage gap does not include women who work part time, or who have dropped out of the workforce. However, stereotypes about men and women’s contributions to the workplace, as opposed to their family lives, can affect wages and raises. Additionally, there are real pressures for women who often work a double and triple shift by working full time and then bearing the bulk of domestic responsibilities, care for children, and care for the elderly. Both men and women increasingly favor workplace flexibility for parenting and elder care. Men are spending more time with their families than ever before, yet their wages are not affected. Similarly, men’s incomes tend to increase after becoming fathers — provided they do not appear to take on many childcare duties — while women face a “mommy penalty” (regardless of contributions at home and work) of fewer opportunities and stagnating wages.

MYTH: There is an “ambition gap”. Women are less likely to self-advocate and ask for raises.

FACT: Women may be less likely to ask for raises, but they are also more likely to be stonewalled when doing so. Sadly, even in 2014, women are still penalized for being assertive while men are rewarded. While it may seem like double standards like these are a thing of the past, studies show that both men and women interviewers favored male candidates and were harder on female candidates. Furthermore, they were surprised that they had done so. Sexism is insidious and still permeates nearly every aspect of our society.

So, what are we talking about when we talk about the gender wage gap? We are talking about a variety of causes and circumstances that contribute to a disparity in wages and opportunities. Blatant sex discrimination is not the sole cause of the wage gap, as it is sometimes posited. However, just because an issue is complicated, hard to solve, and multi-faceted doesn’t mean it is a non-issue. If we ignore the vast disparities in wages between whites and most populations of color, we are failing to have a useful conversation about the wage gap. Likewise, when we talk about the manner in which women’s choices affect their earnings, we must also talk about the way that outdated policies and biases impact not only those decisions but also the outcomes.

The YWCA is committed to ending both sexism and racism and providing both quality direct service and legislative advocacy. There is no one solution to closing the wage gap; that’s why the YWCA supports a nuanced, intersectional approach to reversing historical economic oppression of women and people of color.

Join us today at 3 p.m. EDT on Twitter with the #wagesecrets and #STEMequalpay hashtags to talk more myths and facts about the wage gap!

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