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The Gender Pay Gap Closed Slightly in 2016, But Don’t Celebrate Yet

Topics: Data & Research

When we talk about the gender pay gap, it’s important to be specific about which gap we’re discussing. The controlled gender pay gap, which compares only men and women with similar jobs, education, and experience, is always much smaller than the uncontrolled gap, which compares all men to all women.

gender pay gap
Image Credit: JD Hancock/Flickr

This year, both measures grew smaller, according to PayScale’s report, Inside the Gender Pay Gap. The controlled gender pay gap declined from 2.7 percent to 2.4 percent, meaning that women earn nearly 98 cents for every dollar a man earns. But the continued existence of that uncontrolled gap – 23.7 percent, or about 76 cents on the dollar, compared to 74 cents on the dollar last year – is the reason why we’re not taking out any parade permits just yet.

The Opportunity Gap

One of the major factors in the uncontrolled gender pay gap is job “choice.” Those scare quotes are necessary: while women often opt into lower paid roles and men into higher ones, it would be a mistake to characterize this as entirely voluntary.

First, there’s the fact that women are more likely to be family caregivers than men. They spend more than twice as much time each day caring for children, according to the American Time Use Survey, and more than triple the time attending to housework. To work and keep things running on the home front, they would obviously need more flexibility than men.

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But the real kicker is that even when families opt to structure things so that women don’t need flexibility, married women with children earn less than married men with children. Previous editions of PayScale’s report have found that only single, childless men and women with the same job, education, and experience have a 0.0 percent gap. In every other case, unconscious bias affects women’s ability to ask for and receive the same money and opportunity as men.

Women are also less likely to get promoted over the course of their careers and often earn less when they climb the corporate ladder. PayScale’s report shows that while men and women are fairly equally represented at the individual contributor level early in their careers, women are more likely to stay there.

Over 60 percent of women are still individual contributors by age 60-65, compared to less than 45 percent of men. Only 3.3 percent of women have reached the executive level by age 60-65, while 8.7 percent of men have done the same.

Men are more likely than women to be working at a higher job level by mid career.

Not Just as Simple as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Get”

It’s not just that men are more aggressive about asking for raises and promotions. Research by Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock, and Lei Lai at Carnegie Mellon found that both men and women thought less of female participants who attempted to negotiate, perceiving them as “less nice.”

Men were likely to penalize women in a way that directly impacted their careers.

“What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not,” Bowles told The Washington Post. “They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not.”

In a male-heavy field, like mining or manufacturing, or a field in which men dominate the executive-level jobs, like finance, this can have obvious implications for women who want to get ahead. If both men and women socially penalize women for asking for raises or promotions, and men won’t work with women who do, we can hardly blame women who don’t ask.

Industry, Job Type, and Pay

This year’s gender pay gap report parses the data in new ways, including a breakdown of the gender pay gap by state. The differences by geographic area are a reminder that industry and job type makes a big difference. For example, the uncontrolled gap is largest in Wyoming (28.8 percent); the oil and gas industry, which has the largest controlled gender pay gap at 7.4 percent, has a strong presence in Wyoming.

It would be a mistake to assume that men are necessarily gravitating toward higher paying work. In fact, research shows that the effect might run in the opposite direction – when men flock to an industry, pay increases, and when women dominate, pay decreases. (For example, in Grace Hopper’s time, computer programming was women’s work, and paid accordingly. When men took over the field, tech jobs became high-paying, in-demand occupations.)

To Get the Full Picture, Keep Your Eye on Both Gaps

Some will look at PayScale’s data and conclude that 98 cents on the dollar is close enough, but that would be a mistake. Those two cents mean that even when women are as qualified as men, they still can’t count on making as much as their male counterparts. Pay equity isn’t horseshoes — close doesn’t count.

But the real measure of how far we have to go in terms of paying men and women equally is that uncontrolled gender pay gap. When jobs pay less when women flock to them, and women bear disproportionately the burden of taking care of family and home, we can’t dismiss the occupation gap as “job choice.”

As Sheryl Sandberg said, “Give us a world where half our homes are run by men, and half our institutions are run by women. I’m pretty sure that would be a better world.”

It also might be a world without a gender pay gap.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think 98 cents on the dollar is close enough, or should employers and workers still strive to close the gender pay gap? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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