Wage Equality: Is Money 'More Important for Men' in the U.S.?

Men out-earn women in the U.S. and lots of people in this country think they should continue to do so, to the detriment of individual women, their families and our entire society.
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According to the World Economic Forum's 2011 Global Gender Gap Study, the U.S. ranks 68th in an evaluation of wage equality between men and women among 135 countries that represent 90% of the world's population. Is it "arguable" that earning a living is more important for men than for women, as a Wisconsin state senator suggested earlier this week? Men out-earn women in the U.S. and people in this country think they should continue to do so. Which means individual women, their families and our entire society will continue to pay high prices for what is essentially a broad application of outdated gender stereotypes to economic policy. But hey, the U.S. ranks No. 1 in Miss Universe wins. That's a major relief, because, after all, when women have a vicarious relationship to their income and long term financial security, the currency of their worth is attractiveness, so at least we look good.

Women have made important and major strides in opportunity, work force engagement and pay in the past half century, but next week's April 17 Equal Pay Day exists for an enduring and legitimate reason. This day symbolically marks how far into the year a woman has to work to make what a man made during the prior calendar year. Yup. That means Jane has to keep working through January, February, March and half of April 2012 in order to bring home the same paycheck that John did in calendar year 2011. Since the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the gap between men's and women's pay (calculated for full-time work) has closed at less than half-a-cent per year. At this rate, we will be "celebrating" this event for fifty more years before the gap closes.

You've heard the statistics: The median annual earnings for working (full-time) white women is 77 cents to a man's dollar. For women of color, the gap and its effects are even greater: African-American women earn 61 cents to the male dollar and Latina women earn 53 cents. Controlling for factors like education, experience, job type and more reveals that fully one-quarter to one-half of the gap is attributable to unexplained causes. Women now make up more than half of the U.S. workforce -- this gap affects hundreds of millions of people and families.

Why do we have such an intractable gender pay gap, what do these numbers actually mean and how are you personally affected by it?

Let me say there are no cabals of mean men, dressed for Scottish Rites, plotting to pay women less. It's a matter of deep cultural habits and systematized sexism borne of dated stereotypes. Unless you live in Wisconsin. In which case, I'm so sorry. Wisconsin is where, while everyone was busy over the weekend, Governor Scott Walker signed a bill repealing the 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act which made it easier for victims of pay discrimination to pursue legal redress. Republican state senator Glenn Grothman, a major champion of the charge to repeal the Act, explained to Daily Beast reporter Michelle Goldberg, "You could argue that money is more important for men."

Uh. Wrong. You could argue NOT and accurately reflect the reality of contemporary life. The most recent Department of Labor Statistics reveal that 40% of wives earn more than their husbands and, according to recent Pew Research studies, women are increasingly earning heads of household (22%). Lastly, due to divorce, widowhood or no marriage, more than half of children born to women under 30 have single, sole-breadwinning mothers. If the wage gap didn't exist, the poverty rate for single mothers would be half of what it is. Boys and men might still feeling a sluggish but strong pressure to provide for dependent women and children. And there are women who feel they are right in doing so. But, we are so far past the days when most women can either afford to or want to have a vicarious and precarious relationship with their income. Women need to be able to earn their own money while raising children. True "family values" would reflect an investment of time, money and political capital to helping them to this without either short-term income or long term security penalization.

Forget, for just a moment, debates about the inputs and analysis that produce these numbers year after year, and consider this: What do those numbers mean in terms of lost wages and spending power?

According to economists at The Wage Project, over the course of her lifetime a woman will earn, on average, this much less for her work than a man of comparable education: If she has a high school degree she will earn $700K less; a college degree, $1.2 million less and, gosh, if she has a professional degree that number is in excess of $1.8 million. Unless she's in Virginia, there she will lose more than $2,000,000 over the course of her working life. What if this gap didn't exist for women in Virginia? How much more could a woman afford during the course of a year?

  • For starters, 1.8 years' worth or 95 more weeks of food
  • Half a year's worth of utilities and mortgage payments
  • More than 3,000 gallons of gasoline
  • Eleven extra months of rent
  • Oh, and, I almost forgot -- nearly three additional years of health insurance premiums for her family.

In addition, consider the ramifications of the lifetime wage gap in terms women's ability to:

  • Save for retirement
  • Accrue Social Security benefits
  • Rely on pension plans and
  • Save for lifetime goals (like buying a house).

For an equivalent, interactive map analysis for your state, go here. Here's a useful list of Zen Koans.

The broad impact on our economy is immeasurable loss. As succinctly articulated by Gloria Feldt, author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power: "For a thriving 21st century economy, America can't afford to lose half its population's contributions."

Mr. Grothman and Mr. Walker, like so many of their peers, are nostalgic for a bygone era based on the outdated and onerous-for-all idea of all-male, sole-breadwinner responsibility. Grothman continued: "I think a guy in their first job (sic), maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money-conscious. To attribute everything to a so-called bias in the workplace is just not true." Personally, I'd rather attribute it to ignorance, paternalistic sexism and a blithe denial of modern economies. But, to be fair, I imagine that Mr. Grothman is simply trying to help sex-seeking young guys by making sure they have a "dining budget" to go a-courtin'. Pat Robertson captured the essence of this "man-up" approach to finances this weekend when he instructed Evangelical faithful men to "push forward and your wife will come along." I know, I know, some people don't want to get too feminist-thinky about money and sex and get befuddled by new-fangled ideas of equality and fairness.

Here's an incontrovertible fact: Regardless of education, experience in the workforce or child-rearing commitments, the gender pay gap remains a stubborn legitimate problem for American women and families (including men, if you can imagine). The effect is magnified for women of color who bear the brunt of the feminization of poverty. Passing legislation that hinders people's ability to seek justice, as Wisconsin just did or as Republican's in Congress have, denies and perpetuates a real problem with real day to day ramifications for people.

There are several dimensions to pay discrimination and a wage gap, many of them wielded as a defensive weapon to explain that the gap is due to women making "choices" that result in lower pay. The choices that women and their families make are a) rational, given the continued imbalanced dynamics of work/family responsibilities and b) false "choices" since both men and women are socially and culturally constrained and unable to consider equally competing and comparable options. Even after taking into account the issue of "choice" gender discrimination remains a marked component of the wage gap measurements.

"The gender pay gap is a product of the choices people think women and men should make, as well as the choices that they actually make," explains Catherine Hill, Director of Research for the American Association of University Women. "Women's work has long been undervalued, and traditionally female jobs continue to pay less than traditionally male jobs. The fact that women working full-time earn just 77 percent of their male peers shows us the scale of the problem."

Here are the major contributors informing the stats and the debate over their relevance:

1) The Maternal Wage Tax:
The way women with children are treated in the workplace is anachronistic. We penalize women and reward men when children enter the picture. The most minimal "real" pay discrimination period in a woman's life takes place when she is unmarried with no children, college educated in her twenties. In her book, The Richer Sex, reporter Lisa Mundy talks about this and predicts that we are on the verge of a "big flip" when women will out-earn men. But, despite the claim of her title, women are not richer and once children enter the picture, the erosion of wages continues to be substantial.

Motherhood is the prime "women make choices" time. Women often work in lower paying sectors, work (outside of the home, for pay) fewer hours a week and therefore fewer paid hours a year than men. They are less likely to get hired (according to The Motherhood Manifesto, 44% less likely) and when they are hired are paid on average 11% less than a childless woman. Their work life is also more likely than men's to be interrupted. Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the degree to which the idea that women stop working to care for children (thereby making choices that reduce their pay) is a matter of stereotyping and perception, not reality: 60 percent of women with children under the age of three and 77 percent of mothers with school-age children remain in the workforce. Secondly, these facts ignore the catch-22 that women and their families face due to the cost of working being higher than the gains. We generally still struggle to have family-friendly work cultures that create a more gender equitable work life playing field. This complicated fact is potentially the most important contributor to the gap's perseverance. Most men I know do not ever seriously consider paternity leave -- the long-term costs to their careers is too significant. Well, what do you think the long-term cost to a woman's career is? Equally significant. But more women make these "choices" than men do and as long as this gap exists the rational choice will be for the higher income earning partner to stay employed and the lower earning partner to stay at home. Gee, could't be because of laws that perpetuate unfair pay practices and enable family-hostile work environments? Or the cultural messages we send children about sex roles, could it?

Quoting Dr. Shelley Correll, who has studied the maternal wage gap for years, MomsRising put it this way:

"We expected to find that moms were going to be discriminated against, but I was surprised by the magnitude of the gap," comments Dr. Correll. "I expected small numbers but we found huge numbers. Another thing was that fathers were actually advantaged and we didn't expect fathers to be offered more money or to be rated higher." But that's what happened. A study by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, found the same thing: Men don't take wage hits after having children, women do."

2) A persistently gender segregated work force
Women continue to make up the majority of low-wage earners in jobs such as teaching, administrative support and nursing. They also are more likely to be employed in the public sector, where wages are significantly lower than in the private sector. The number one job held by women in 2010: secretary. Why do women cluster in the lowest paying jobs? Is it a chicken or egg problem? First, many originated as extensions of "nurturing," "mothering" roles and "naturally" women want to do those out of the goodness of their little, womanly hearts. Second, these jobs are perceived as unskilled to some degree -- not needing either additional training or graduate degrees. Women chose these jobs for lots of reasons among them are that a) they are "traditional" women's jobs, b) people believe they are more "flexible" which is questionable at best, c) they do not require an investment in higher education, d) women are less likely to pursue traditionally "male" jobs -- which often require early childhood educational focus in the sciences and math (that's a whole other issue).

3.) Women get a lower return on educational investment in terms of pay.
Most people pursue education to improve their lot in life and earn more money. With each level of education, potential earning power increases, as does the lifetime value of an investment in education. Over the course of a man's life, he will make 84% more if he gets a Bachelor's degree than if he stops at high school. There is a correlating jump if he gets a professional degree. For him, each educational step yields a correlating increase in earnings. That's not true for women compared to men. So, whereas women with degrees make more than women without, they still make less than men with the same educational background. Because of wage discrimination, for a woman to make what a man with a high school degree makes, she has to get a college degree. This is true at every level of change in education. Georgetown University's College Payoff study, has details if you care to read more. Multiple studies have consistently found that women earn less than men with similar degrees in the same occupational categories -- for full-time work with the same level of experience. Women pursuing higher education do tend to study fields with lower earning potential however, so more English majors, less engineering. But there is an interesting problem with women seeking to diversify their educational and professional options: When women enter traditionally "male" fields they don't earn more money, but instead, salaries and prestige go down.

4) Last but not least, plain old-fashioned sex discrimination.
Many people refuse to believe that gender discrimination still exists. In addition to the issues above, debunking myths abound. The US Census American Factfinder reveals apples to apples, full-time pay inequities between women and men doing the same job. For example, women physicians and surgeons earned $120,971, compared with $190,726 for men and women securities, commodities and financial services sales agents earned $52,524, compared to $85,760 for their male counterparts. Multiple studies like the AAUW's 2012 The Simple Truth, controlled for factors known to affect earnings such as education and training, parenthood and hours worked, "college-educated women still earn five percent less than men one year out of college and 12 percent less than men 10 years out of college." Fully one quarter of the pay gap is unexplained despite attempts to account for differences. The gap is constant, well and consistently documented. Some people simply refuse to believe this can be the case.

Taking all of this into account might make it easier to understand why pay equity and its relation to long term wage earning equity goes from being a matter of individual discrimination and legal redress to broad systemized societal bias that need to be addressed through legislation and policy. It's also easier to understand how certain types portray women as gold-digging, dependent parasites, seemingly incapable of managing "their" finances. Imagine if men lived in a system where politicians (84% of whom were women) continuously enacted laws that imperiled their ability to earn a living fairly, increased their chances of poverty and long term insecurity? Imagine if the basis for policy was the idea that men's income would be optimized, ideally, through a relationship with a higher wage earning female? They too might make decisions that are rational, but on the surface seem self-defeating or mercenary.

Both "pay equity" statistics (although usefully illustrative) and the arguments debunking these statistics (such as Mr. Grothman's "suggestion" that it is more important for men to make money than for women) are distracting and misleading for three reasons: 1) both strongly suggest an incorrect zero-sum, either/or, women v. men framework for the issue. Valuing women's work and paying them fairly does not penalize men who by and large have to work in economic partnership with women now 2) the focus on "pay" instead of aggregated wages minimizes the issue of women's long-term financial vulnerability and impoverishment which have serious implications for society and 3) emphasizing "pay" obscures our country's lack of policy commitment to family friendly policies, maternal and paternal leave and other structures that support working mothers (and fathers) instead of penalizing them.

There are several ways to address these issues and they are all necessary. One is for companies to understand the value of family friendly policies from which men and women can both benefit. Many already pursue these policies to positive effect, but they are the minority. Lists of which companies are ranked for best work life balance benefits abound. Those that focus on the best companies for working mothers also tend to be the best for working fathers. The second is to make sure that legislation related to fair pay is not revoked or is passed when up for a vote. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which is vital to addressing this gap and eliminating loopholes, is up for a vote in Congress and may not pass. In an effort to stem the tide of women to the Democratic party, Republican candidates are now using words like "kitchen table" decisions. The problem is, deep down they still think the only people at the kitchen table are women and that they are making their decisions when their husbands come home after a long day at work. Otherwise, they wouldn't be systematically voting against fair pay provisions both at the state and federal levels. If you're in a clicktavist kind of mood be a Two Minute Activist get involved here.

Contact any of the following organizations to better understand compensation, legal issues, legislation and workplace culture as they relate to making pay more equitable and reducing lifetime wage loss for women:

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