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  • Kathryn Patterson

What is the Gender Pay Gap?

While I avoid labeling myself a "feminist" because of the overabundance of man-hating rhetoric associated with modern feminism, I do want to contribute to the burgeoning equality of our society.  A few weeks ago, online media spewed a plethora of articles about the question, is there a gender pay gap?  What I found missing was a definition of "gender pay gap" and why it's important.

What does "gender pay gap" mean?

gender pay gap:  the difference in the amount of money earned between two people of disparate genders for similar work, with the difference rooted in gender as opposed to other factorsThat's my definition, and in simple English it means that for every dollar a man makes in the workplace, a woman makes statistically less than a dollar.  For clarity, I haven't found any data for transgender or other non-cis people, so I am leaving them out of the discussion for the moment. Several studies have been done to determine if women get paid less than men, using a variety of technique and methods.  I've read through several, and I can say with certainty that there is a gender pay gap, both here in the United States and in the European Union.  I don't have research from the rest of the world, but I assume that there exists a gender pay gap most places. The problem is that no one can agree on how much a woman is paid, and how to fix the problem.  I've seen estimates as low as 66¢ up to 95¢ for what a woman earns for every dollar a man earns.  But until the number is $1.00, we have work to do. To compound the problem, how much a woman is paid changes based on years of experience and job description.  In general, women just entering the work force face a much smaller pay gap then women who have worked for decades.  Also, blue collar jobs tend to have a smaller pay gap than white collar jobs.

But, Why??Reasons abundant float around as to the "why" - though to be completely honest most of these "reasons" are gut feelings and opinions.  People blame everything from men to glass ceilings to sticky floors for the gender pay gap. In case you didn't know, a "glass ceiling" is an figurative invisible barrier that limits how high a woman can reach in terms of promotions and salary, while "sticky floor" is a figurative ground level that keeps a woman at the bottom of the pay scale. But I see glass ceilings and sticky floors as mechanisms that impose the gender pay gap, not as reasons for this phenomenon.  I also don't think that there is a single reason, a single culprit that anyone can point to an say, "Look!  There!  That is the cause of the gender pay gap!"  I also believe that we have a long way to go before we honestly understand the whys behind the gender pay gap.

So what can we do?Actually, I think there are a few things we can do right now to help the situation.  First and foremost, remove pay secrecy from the workplace and remove the social stigma associated with talking about salaries. More than once, a woman learns that she is getting underpaid because of discussion with her co-workers about salary.  Companies try to discourage this type of discussion, some of them even attempt to ban them even though pay secrecy is illegal according to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.  Currently, the repercussions for pay secrecy violations are minimal, and Congress has yet to fix loopholes in the law.  Luckily for anyone working in the federal arena, in 2014 President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from punishing or retaliating against employees who discuss wages or other compensation. Second, for certain industries, I think it makes sense to have a public pay scale.  In other words, everyone who works for company X in position Y will always get a specified wage.  Yes, I know this won't work everywhere.  But it's a start.  

And two solutions don't address the entire problem.  Most industries began with only male workers, and so most industries organically grew into male-centric organizations.  The way we interview, how promotions and raises are gotten, and even how groups discuss and solves problems - these are all done in ways more comfortable to men than women.  This matters because our current economic system incentivizes companies to pay the least amount of money for each employee.  So if an employee is willing to work for a lower amount, the company happily will pay less.  Typically speaking, a man has more self-confidence than a woman; therefore a man will ask for and receive more money. I don't know how to solve this problem, because it's inherent in our version of capitalism.

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