The pay problem: Are gender wage disparities irreparable?

As an engineering major, Sarah Rybacki ’17 knows that entering a male-dominated industry in the near future means she is bound to face wage gap issues.

In fact, she’s even had professors prepare her for what she might encounter when she enters the workforce. “I have been encouraged to be self-confident, to stand up for myself and to be very certain of my work,” she said. “I’ve been told that I will likely have several labels placed on me before I even introduce myself, most prominently that I will be the diversity hire.”

The wage gap issue, however, is much larger than just one field of work. In reality, wage differences by gender have been a part of American society for as long as women have infiltrated the workplace.

According to information from the National Committee on Pay Equity, while both men’s and women’s yearly salaries have increased since their information’s start date of 1960, women only made almost 79 percent of what men earned in 2014.

While this appears to be an improvement, women’s median yearly salaries have only seen a 39 percent increase over these 54 years, with women earning an all-time low 57 percent of men’s wages in 1973. Median yearly earnings in general have experienced some fluctuation, but men consistently earned more over the five decade time frame.



Median earnings between men and women have fluctuated between 1960 and 2014, according to data from the National Committee on Pay Equity. Graph by Nicole Funaro/Notes from Nicole

But in the United Kingdom, the wage gap saga proves to be a much different story. Between 1997 and 2015, the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics found that female workers’ median hourly earnings increased by nearly 78 percent; by 2015, female workers earned 81 percent of men’s hourly wages, with women’s median earnings totaling £10.51 per hour while men earned £13. Full-time and part-time hourly wages in 2015 proved more egalitarian: full-time female workers earned 91 percent of men’s pay, but part-time female workers made more than their male counterparts, taking home 106 percent of men’s pay.

Although there are variations globally, there are even fluctuations in the wage disparity by state. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, Louisiana has the largest pay gap, with 35 cents separating men’s and women’s hourly wages, despite the average gap across all states (including the District of Columbia) coming in 14 cents lower at 21 cents.

states top 10

Data from the National Partnership for Women & Families shows that there are even variations in the wage disparity by state. Graph by Nicole Funaro/Notes from Nicole

As if the gap weren’t widespread enough, the issue only grows more complicated when examining minority women. For example, information from the National Partnership for Women & Families shows that, in the 20 states with the largest number of full-time female African American employees, their combined median salary amounts to $689,671 annually; white, non-Hispanic men in those same states earn over 60 percent more, with a combined median salary totaling $1,104,836 annually. This means that African American women employed full time in these states earn an average of 62 cents for every full-time white man’s dollar.

With the issue affecting women of all eras, locations and ethnicities, Rybacki knows that she will become one of the many affected by wage disparities when she enters the workforce.

“The wage gap is concerning,” she said. Speculating on the source of the gap, Rybacki said, “I’ve heard it attributed to men knowing how to negotiate a salary. And maybe this attributes to the lack of self confidence felt by women across the country.”

Rybacki pointed to one of the potential sources of the gap: salary discrimination and negotiation. According to a Washington Post article written by Laura J. Kray, professor of Leadership at the University of California’s Berkeley-Haas School of Business, the interim CEO of social media site Reddit, Ellen Pao, banned salary negotiations in order to “eliminate the persistent disadvantage that women have at the bargaining table.”

Citing a 2011 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Pyschology, Kray wrote, “Researchers repeatedly have documented that people react more unfavorably to women who ask for more money, compared with men who do. A woman who negotiates is seen as especially demanding and therefore a less-than-ideal new colleague,” thus discouraging female employees’ negotiation and perpetuating the gap.

Pew Research, however, presents a different picture of the causes of the wage disparity. While women have increased their presence in higher-paying jobs that were traditionally relegated to men, the study shows that “women as a whole continue to work in lower-paying occupations than men do.”

No matter the source of the gap, it has ramifications that affect every aspect of a woman’s life. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s population survey data, women’s median weekly earnings as of the fourth quarter of 2010 were $22 less than men’s; this disparity could accrue to a cumulative loss of $379,000 by the time a woman reaches the age of 65.

dep of labor

Differences in earnings can amount to significant losses over time. Graph by the U.S. Department of Labor

Such differences in earnings have the potential to impact current and future generations of female workers alike. The Brookings Institute found that half of all girls born into low-income families have poor chances of upward mobility and will grow up to remain low-income situations in adulthood, while only 39 percent of boys will do the same.

Dr. Emily J. Orlando, associate professor of English and co-director of the Women, Gender & Sexuality studies program, said the impacts of such a gap have the potential to affect every aspect of life.

“It affects everything,” she said, “Quality of life is the first thing that comes to mind.”

Although the gap has persisted despite its speculated sources, it may — or may not — soon see its demise with the 2016 presidential election. In February 2016, Cosmopolitan and John Della Volpe, CEO of poll group SocialSphere and director of polling at the Harvard Institute for Politics, surveyed 1,000 newsletter subscribers between the ages 18 and 34 about the issues in the current election that concern them. The results of the survey indicate that nearly 60 percent of millennial voters see the wage gap as an important issue facing the country.

With the issue among the chief concerns of young voters, current presidential candidates have addressed the gap in different ways. According to Think Progress, a political news blog, candidates Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Hillary Clinton (D) have both supported the Paycheck Fairness Act of 2014, with Clinton being a major sponsor of the bill that aimed to enact harsher penalties for pay discrimination, among other things.

Ted Cruz (R-TX), however, has a history of thwarting the issue, voting against the Paycheck Fairness Act in late 2014, helping the Republican senators unanimously block its passage. The Huffington Post reported in October 2015 that right-wing front runner Donald Trump explained his views on equal pay to an audience member at the Problem Solver Convention in Manchester, New Hampshire in this way: “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.”

With such polarizing positions on the wage gap, Rybacki is hopeful that the issue will be addressed by the incoming president and his or her administration.

“I’m hopeful that regardless of who is elected that the wage gap will be addressed,” she offered. “However, I think an issue like this is a social issue and needs to start at the grassroots. I think it starts with empowering women and women being aware of their own self-worth.”

Dr. Orlando offered that perhaps a more visible presence of women in leadership roles will be a starting point in bringing about a change in wage disparities.

“I think getting more women in positions of leadership — not just CEOs and the President of the U.S. but also SCOTUS [Supreme Court of the United States] and the House and Senate — could move things in a more equitable direction,” she said.

No matter how pay disparities will be addressed in the future, Rybacki said she hopes that Americans as a society can get to the heart of the issue.

“My only hope is that the wage gap isn’t forgotten. I think fundamentally, it’s about equality and respecting the inherent dignity each of us possesses.”

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