The Pay Gap: What’s the Cause?

By Samantha Chang

the pay gapWhether we want to admit it or not, income disparity between men and women is a fact of life. Women earn on average 25% less than men and the gap doesn’t seem to be closing anytime soon.

There are several reasons for this trend, including women taking time off to raise children, gender discrimination, and a tendency for women to gravitate toward female-dominated professions (such as teaching) where salaries tend to be lower, experts say. There’s also the fact that women don’t negotiate salaries the way men do, which contributes to the discrepancy.

The Chicken or the Egg?

But how much of this disparity is externally driven, and how much is due to lifestyle and career choices women make on their own? While it’s undeniable that discrimination in hiring, promotion and salary decisions occur, some people say women earn less because of the choices they make.

“It’s all about trade-offs,” according to Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Earn More. “[When] you earn more money, you usually sacrifice something at home.” Farrell says men get paid more because they take jobs that require greater safety risks (such as construction), require more travel (such as sales), and necessitate longer hours and more educational training (such as brain surgery).

The pay differences that spawned a generation of angry women and anxious men are largely the result of self-imposed decisions and not external factors, he says. “Women and men look at their life, and women say, ‘What do I need? Do I need more money, or do I need more time?’ And women are intelligent enough to say, I need more time,” Farrell writes. And these choices account for their overall lower pay, he says.

Chasm Exists among Recent College Grads

pic2If Farrell’s arguments are true, then there shouldn’t be much pay difference between younger male workers and their female counterparts (who haven’t yet taken time off to raise kids), right? But in fact, this isn’t true.

Women earn 20% less than men as early on in their careers as one year after graduating college, according to a study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. And that gap actually widens to 31% some 10 years after college, the report indicates. “It was a little surprising that we saw the pay gap so quickly out of college,” according to Catherine Hill, the foundation’s research director.

The report contradicts the accepted notion that women earn less overall because they take time off to raise children, and this has some lawmakers hopping mad. “This pay disparity exists even for students fresh out of college,” Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) has said. “It’s been [45] years since the Equal Pay Act was introduced, and we still see the disparity in such astonishing numbers,” according to Capps.

When the Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1963, women made 59 cents for every dollar a man earned doing the same work. By 2006, the gap had closed to 77 cents on the dollar, but there still was no parity. So even as women continue to get more education and training, that progress is still not reflected in our paychecks.

Silence of the Damned?pic3

The taboos surrounding money talk among women is a contributing factor, some say. That, coupled with the confidentiality policies that many companies have that dissuade workers from disclosing compensation to each other, adds to the murkiness surrounding the pay debate. In other words, a woman may be paid less doing the exact same job a man in her office does but is never aware of it. That silence makes it difficult for her to seek equal pay.

To combat this conspiracy of silence, some lawmakers—including presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, who proposed this bill—are pushing for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which protects workers.

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