20 Years After First Equal Pay Day, Men Still Outpace Women

By Susan Milligan Apr 13, 2015
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It’s 2015, and the 20th year running for Equal Pay Day, a public awareness event designed to draw attention to the gap in earnings between men and women.

So why do women still earn about 78 cents on the dollar when compared to men, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau? Is it because women take time off to raise families, interrupting the promotion path? Are men more educated? Maybe women choose lower-paying professions. Or maybe they just don’t know how to ask for more money.

The answers to those questions only partially account for the stubborn persistence of the pay gap, experts say. This year, Equal Pay Day, which was started in 1996 by the National Committee on Pay Equity, is April 14, 2015. The date symbolizes how many additional days women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.

Women’s pay, when compared to men’s, grew substantially in the 1980s and 1990s, largely because women were getting more education, especially advanced and professional degrees, researchers say, but those gains have stagnated.

And if things don’t change, it will be another century before women catch up with men in earnings, predicts Catherine Hill, vice president of research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which tracks gender patterns.

“It’s maybe because we’ve gotten the low-hanging fruit [of leveling the education playing field], and now the next gains are going to be tougher,” Hill said.

The 78-cent statistic has been called into question by skeptics, who say women often make less because they ask for more work “flexibility” to balance child-rearing responsibilities. But AAUW wage-gap research revealed that women just a year out of college, and childless, still made just 82 percent of what men that age made.

In addition, studies by Catalyst, the New York-based nonprofit organization focused on expanding opportunities for business and women, show that the pay gap exists even when the numbers are controlled for parenthood. Women in highly professional jobs also are not paid more equally, even at the start of their careers, said Anna Beninger, director of research at Catalyst.

”Even among these high-potentials who have all graduated from prestigious business schools and bring the same human capital to the table, there is a gender gap in level and pay from the very first job,” Beninger said.

Male-dominated jobs do indeed pay more, on average, than female-dominated positions, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). But even within those fields, men have an advantage. For example, an IWPR report showed in the male-dominated field of software development, men made an average of $1,737 per week in 2013, compared to $1,370 for women in the same job. Among registered nurses, women—who dominate the profession—have lower paychecks than male counterparts, who made an average of $1,236 weekly, compared to $1,036 for women.

Education doesn’t level the salaries, either. A 2011 Georgetown University report showed that while education is critical to making higher wages, men benefited more than women from a college diploma. In fact, a woman would need to earn a doctoral degree to make the same average salary as a man with a bachelor’s degree, the report said. Experts agree women can improve their wage levels by shedding a reluctance to ask for more money—especially in the first job.

“It starts when you accept the job. I tell every woman I can to ask for more money immediately when you accept the job,” said Teresa Taylor, CEO of the Denver-based consulting firm Blue Valley Advisors. “For whatever reason, we [women] are not as confident” asking for higher remuneration, she added.

According to Kathleen Harris, vice president of content development at Levo League, a professional network for Millennials, “it’s an emotional fear” that a company will withdraw a job offer if a woman asks for more money. In a recent Levo survey, 55 percent of women said they didn’t want to come across as pushy, while 63 percent said they felt uncomfortable with the whole process of negotiating salary. And even younger women are affected by the fear: 60 percent of Millennial-generation women don’t negotiate, Levo research shows.

But in reality, companies “want to make it work,” and will do what they can to get their preferred job candidate, Harris said.

HR managers can help, according to Taylor, by assessing gender patterns in pay and making managers aware of these patterns.

“I have had managers come to me and say, ‘We did an analysis, and this is what’s going on in your department.’ And I had no idea,” Taylor said. “I do think it’s HR’s responsibility to make managers aware of this, because they’re the ones with the information. They see it first.”

Something as simple as identifying job candidates by their initials, instead of by their full names, can help in achieving fairness in hiring, promotion and pay, Hill said. In a study exercise in which managers were presented with resumes from “John” and “Jennifer” for a science-tech job, both women and men preferred the male candidate and thought he merited a higher salary, she said. Even a public statement from management underscoring the organization’s commitment to pay equity can help change the pay dynamic, Hill suggested.

Salary transparency, too, can help bridge the gap, Beninger said. “When people know salary guidelines and what colleagues make, it becomes much easier to bring one’s salary in line with colleagues at the same level,” she said.

HR should also make it clear what it will take for employees to get a promotion or a raise, she said. “When performance criteria are crystal clear and the path upward is well established, women will be on equal footing for those important raises and promotions,” Beninger concluded.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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