What Accounts for the Wage Gap?

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One of the first jobs I had as a teenager was in a department store where I was paid $1.70 an hour. (Yes, this was a LONG time ago.)  What I didn’t realize at the time was that every male new hire was being paid $1.85 an hour. Not only that, but it was only men who were eligible for commission sales, like shoes and men’s suits. I languished away in the maternity department, where I spent most of my time straightening up merchandise. The department was discreetly tucked into a corner lest, God forbid, the average customer would be exposed to things like nursing bras and maternity pantyhose.

These days, maternity clothes are right on the main aisle and all new hires, male or female, make the same wage. (It’s a pitiful wage, but at least it’s equal.) This is true in a lot of jobs, especially where there is union representation. Yet the statistics say that say that women make only 67-85% of every dollar a man makes (depending on what area of the country). What accounts for the discrepancy?

For one thing, more men than women are involved in sales, and more sales are directed their way. For another, men are disproportionately represented in management positions. But what about when men and women do the same job?

Take for example, the world of academia. A man may be paid more than a woman because of the department in which he teaches. They are both professors but he is in engineering and she is in comparative literature. The more money that’s funneled into a department, the more money its professors make. Men make more money than women when they infiltrate professions that have traditionally been considered to be women’s, like nursing or elementary education. A woman entering a “male” profession is not typically paid more than the men, although she may make the same.

Men are also often paid more because they are considered capable of doing things that require “male” characteristics, like physical strength and analytical thinking. (Everyone knows that men’s minds are more logical than women’s.) Women are in the default category. Their (female) characteristics, like being sensitive and nurturing,  are not as highly prized. Check out what your day care worker makes sometime.

Then there are the waiters who make more money than waitresses, the male chefs who make more than female ones, the male hairdressers who make more than those who happen to be women. These gaps are narrowing, but one reason why men make more for doing the same thing is because men demand more than women do. They are more assertive.

So when it comes right down to it, the reason for the wage gap is attitudes–socially engineered attitudes. Women are reluctant to try for and excel at high-paying jobs because they have been socialized into thinking that they are not supposed to be bosses, especially not over men. Society values masculine qualities more than female qualities (and it is society that convinces us that masculine and feminine qualities are strictly defined categories). The jobs that require feminine qualities are prized over those that require masculine ones.

There are more female doctors, engineers, scientists and lawyers than there used to be, but even when women make it into these professions, they are often paid less because they take maternity leave and too many personal days to care for sick children. But who decided that it had to be the woman who stayed home with the new baby or sick child? (And we’re not even talking about single mothers here.)

There are those who think that men and women are more different than they are alike. Feminists see it the opposite way: that the sexes are more the same than they are different. And that if we were able to correct for socialization, the differences would practically disappear. The feminist movement in the U.S. is in the peculiar position of having won its more obvious battles. The ones that are left are largely psychological. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be fought–and won.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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