As wage gap narrows, women still among lowest paid members of society

By Melissa Mastrogiovanni

Almost 50 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women are still making on average 81 percent of a man’s median weekly earnings, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Inadequate legislation, patriarchal corporate culture and women’s own reluctance to engage in salary negotiation all play a role in the existence of the gender wage gap, said Kerith Woodyard, assistant professor of rhetorical studies and director of forensics.

“Part of the problem is that women, in general, are less likely than men to negotiate for a higher starting salary which significantly limits their long-term earning potential,” Woodyard said. “Even today, differences in the way males and females are socialized to behave amount to women generally being more uncomfortable than men asking for a higher starting salary or raise.”

The gender wage gap can vary depending on race or ethnicity, education, geographic location and occupation, Woodyard said.

“Often the wage gap is narrower in fields dominated by women, such as elementary education and nursing,” Woodyard said. “However, these fields tend to be relatively low-paying, in part, because they are ‘women’s professions.’”

When men enter these “pink-collared” jobs, such as nursing or elementary education, they tend to get promoted earlier than their female counterparts, said Kristen Myers, associate professor of sociology and director of undergraduate studies in the sociology department.

“The wage gap is still there, it’s just kind of hidden,” Myers said.

Amy Levin, English professor and director of Women’s Studies, said the gender wage gap occurs for a variety of reasons.

“Women are often encouraged to pursue careers in fields that are lower paid,” Levin said. “In other cases, unconscious bias plays a role. An employer may feel that a male needs a higher salary under the assumption that he is the only breadwinner in the family. The same employer may decide that a woman is less serious about a job when she doesn’t stay late because she has to get home to take care of her children.”

As a result of the gender wage gap, women and their families struggle with poverty, poor health care and a lack of educational opportunities, Levin said.

When both a man and woman have a child and the child gets sick, there is a social norm that the woman is expected to leave work to pick-up and take care of the sick child, Myers said.

“Women are expected to put their kids first over work,” Myers said. “Workplaces don’t allow both men and women to be parents.”

Although the wage gap has narrowed since the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women are still among the lowest paid members of society, Woodyard said.

“Women tend to be overrepresented among low wage earners but still earn less than their male counterparts,” Woodyard said. “While higher levels of education are correlated with higher economic status and increased earning potential, women still tend to be the lowest wage earners within each socio-economic class.”

To fight wage inequality, education and negotiation is essential, Levin said.

“On a political level, women and men alike can urge their congressional representatives to support the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963,” Woodyard said. “On a personal level, women should learn negotiation skills so that they are prepared to effectively negotiate a higher salary, rather than simply accept the first offer a prospective employer puts on the table.”