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The Greatest Myth of All is That There is Nothing to Be Done About the Wage Gap

Everyone seems to agree on the basic facts [PDF]: that women overall earn less than men; that the gender wage gap starts out fairly small early in women’s careers and then grows over time; that the gender wage gap does get smaller, but doesn’t disappear, when accounting for factors like occupation and experience; and that men and women are still more likely to be concentrated in jobs that pay dramatically different wages. In truth the only disagreement is whether we should be doing something about this.

Yet in the wake of President Obama’s acknowledgment in last week’s State of the Union of the plain fact that women working full time, year round in this country typically earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, commentators have come out of the woodwork to decry this wage gap as a “myth”. Calling the wage gap a myth implies that policy changes would be futile in closing the gap – and that is simply untrue.

For example, the degree to which men out-earn women is reduced when men and women work in the same occupations and have the same educational backgrounds and experience. But a wage gap remains nonetheless [PDF]– and even a wage gap of a few cents on the dollar can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars lost over the course a woman’s career. Pay disparities of any size between men and women who are performing the same work is unacceptable, and there are policy tools available to address this problem. The Paycheck Fairness Act [PDF] would allow workers to discuss their pay so that women who are being paid less than their male colleagues can find out and fix the situation, and would require employers to justify pay disparities between men and women who are doing the same job.

In addition, women are more likely to work in lower-paying occupations while men are more likely to work in higher-paying occupations. But the concentration of the sexes at opposite ends of the pay spectrum is not simply the result of women’s and men’s differing professional interests and choices. Women continue to face barriers to their entry into more remunerative traditionally-male occupations such as harassment, isolation, active discouragement, and a lack of information about job options, and they are often steered into lower-paying jobs that are considered more appropriate for their gender. Plus this segregation is actually one of the causes of women’s lower pay in traditionally-female occupations [PDF]– studies have found that wages in occupations that are predominantly female are lower precisely because women are the majority of workers in the occupation. Public policy interventions are needed to ensure that women have equal access to the full range of high-paying occupations, and that occupations where women are currently concentrated pay fair wages.

Finally, the wage gap reflects an economic hit that women take for their role in providing unpaid care [PDF] to their children and other family members. Mothers are the vast majority of single parents, and spend nearly twice as much time on childcare as fathers in dual-income households. Two-thirds of caregivers for sick, elderly or disabled family members are women. Because few employers provide flexible policies to accommodate caregiving responsibilities, these women suffer the financial consequences of having to cut back on work hours or take time out of the workforce. And even when mothers have not reduced their work output at all they still suffer – one study found that women who were mothers [PDF] were recommended for significantly lower starting salaries, were perceived as less competent, and were less likely to be recommended for hire than equally qualified non-mothers (while fathers were actually recommended for significantly higher pay and were perceived as more committed to their jobs than non-fathers). Enacting policies that support parents and other caregivers – such as paid family leave [PDF], and workplace accommodations [PDF] so that pregnant women can continue working safely throughout pregnancy – are integral to closing the gender pay gap.

Instead of blaming women for the persistence of the gender wage gap by attacking its veracity, we should all instead be investing our energy in pursuing common-sense solutions that have the potential to narrow that gap for the first time in about a decade [PDF].