The gender pay gap: what women in the job market need to know

By Kara Odum '15 Economics Columnist

The gender pay gap is the systematic wage discrepancy between men and women resulting from gender discrimination, variance in chosen field, and number of hours worked. The most popular figure often quoted is that women make 77% of what their male counterparts earn, or put differently, women earn 23% less than men according to the median income of a full-time year-round worker. However, this discrepancy isn’t completely due to gender discrimination in the workplace. In fact, if everything is held constant including the type of work, experience, skill, hours worked, etc., then the gender pay gap drops to 7%, which is still an unacceptably high number.

What are the other causes of the gender pay gap? Most experts agree that women choose professions that aren’t as profitable. For example, more women go into education and the social sciences, which historically pay less, while men are more likely to pursue historically more profitable fields such as engineering and computer science. This aspect of the pay gap represents the differing general career interests between women and men. Another explanation of the pay gap comes from men and women’s tendencies to negotiate for wages differently. This discrepancy starts from the first job held and grows as the women’s career progresses. If a man can negotiate a higher salary, like $35,000 compared to the woman’s starting salary of $30,000, then the next time a raise comes up or the worker gets a new job, the man will be able to get an even larger salary.

The key for women starting their first job is to negotiate for their salary, rather than take the first number offered. However, women are hesitant to do this for many reasons: they fear the offer can be rescinded, they are afraid of rejection or risk, and they feel they will be perceived differently for it. There is an element of truth to the concern that women who negotiate will be perceived as aggressive. In a study done at Carnegie Mellon, men and women asked for a raise using the same script, but while employers liked the men’s forwardness the women were branded as being ‘pushy’.

There is some hope that over time the gender pay gap will erode. Progress has been made in attracting talented women to science, making understood the importance of negotiating, and introducing even more skilled women into the workforce. Schools have been making an effort to include more women in STEM areas by increasing visibility of female professionals, broadening the focus of science to be more interdisciplinary, and encouraging girls early on to explore math and science. Recently women have been earning more degrees, 60% of all masters and 50.4% of PhDs and programs have been set up to help teach undergraduate and early-career women how to negotiate effectively for better salaries. Slowly but surely, the gender pay gap will continue to decrease, although gender discrimination will be around in the workplace for a while yet.