When it comes to the pay gap, women don’t have a choice

download (2)This week the Census Bureau confirmed what many working women already experience: the gender wage gap isn’t closing – it’s stuck. Stagnant. While the gap between men’s and women’s earnings did narrow slightly in 2013, with women earning 78 cents for every dollar compared to 76.5 cents a year earlier, it has remained virtually unchanged since 2007.

Why is it that in an economy where women are more likely to go to college and make up nearly half of the labor force, the gender pay disparity remains persistently high? One common misconception is that women make less because of their job choices, like where to work, how many hours to work, and what level of education to obtain.

Nope. Researchers have estimated that as much as 40 percent of the gender wage gap cannot be explained even when taking into account gendered differences between the occupations, educations, and work histories of men and women.

Besides, many of these “choices” are in fact shaped by  discrimination that is far outside the ability of one job-seeker to control. Gender stereotypes, unreasonable and unpredictable hours in low wage jobs and inadequate government and employer response support for pregnant workers negatively affect women’s ability to succeed in the workplace. Women still bear a greater share of family caregiving responsibilities and make choices because they are disproportionately balancing the needs of work and family.

In other words, this isn’t about *what* woman choose, it’s about *why*. It’s about the ways in which women are systematically disadvantaged, from top female CEOs earning less than their male counterparts, to single mothers being much more likely to live in poverty than single fathers. Many fields are still segregated by sex and women are choosing occupations which penalize them the least for taking time out of work.

So how to fix it? Giving women the chance to have their voices heard in American workplaces is key to their economic security and the economic security of American families. That’s why The Center for American Progress, the President of the National Women’s Law Center, and President Obama have all expressed the need for a national women’s economic agenda that reduces discrimination in, and increase flexibility at, work — so women can “choose” differently.

This is not an easy climb – but fortunately, there are many paths to the top of this particular mountain. For example, in Washington, D.C., Senate Republicans unanimously voted to block the Paycheck Fairness Act which would ban salary secrecy and strengthen equal pay laws for women. But here in Washington State, the Washington Work and Family Coalition isn’t waiting for Congress to act. It’s pushing forward to strengthen women’s economic security through paycheck transparency, paid sick days, and paid family leave.

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Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

And it’s a good thing too. The gender pay gap in Washington State is among the worst in the nation and it’s even worse in Seattle, largely due to the fact that its manufacturing and technology sectors, which have recovered quickly from the recession, are both male-dominated and well-paying.

In 2013, women who live in Seattle earned just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men — down from 86 cents in 2012. That 8 cents drop represents the largest 1-year widening of the gender pay gap among major U.S. cities, and puts us tied with Tulsa, Okla., as the fifth-worst in 2013.

That gap doesn’t just represent a paycheck differential. It represents how women are put in situations every day that for a variety of reasons mean they earn less. The only way to close that gap is to change the constraints that women face.

Ensuring that the work women perform is valued fairly, that women are not penalized unfairly for their caregiving responsibilities, and that there is greater transparency in workplace pay practices may not change the broader problem of how we value women in our society. But it will alleviate some of the constraints women face, so they can take control of their economic security and be free to make new – and better – choices for themselves and their families.

By Sarah Van Houten, MPA, Graduate Intern

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