5 Things We Still Get Wrong About the Gender Pay Gap

There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about the gender pay gap.

Few topics stir up as much disagreement in the workplace as the gender pay gap. There seems to be even more discussion surrounding it in recent months, perhaps sparked by events like The International Women’s Strike and A Day Without A Woman, or maybe the existence of the Fearless Girl on Wall Street.

The truth is, though, that there are a lot of misconceptions floating around about the gender pay gap, and they don’t just come from any one camp in particular. Rather, they exist on both sides of the fence.

Armed with a stack of research and some insight from Glassdoor Chief Economist Dr. Andrew Chamberlain, we set out to identify and debunk some of the most persistent myths out there — here’s what we found.

Myth #1: "The gender pay gap doesn’t exist."

In the Glassdoor study Demystifying the Gender Pay Gap, Dr. Chamberlain writes that “[men] earn more than women on average in every country we examined, both before and after adding statistical controls for personal characteristics, job title, company, industry, and other factors designed to make an apples-to-apples comparison between workers.”

In fact, when “comparing workers with the same age, education, years of experience, location — all the way down to job title and employer — the gender pay gap in the U.S. falls to 5.4 percent. That’s the equivalent of women earning about 95 cents for every dollar men earn.”

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Other studies have found similar results — a pair of economists from Cornell University found that after controlling for such factors as education, experience, industry and occupation, women’s average hourly earnings reached about 92 percent of men’s, while a study from the American Association of University Women found that women earned about 93 percent of what men do after factoring in full-time status, number of hours, occupation, and sector.

Myth #2: "The gender pay gap is so small it doesn’t even matter."

With such relatively small differences in the gender pay gap — less than ten cents on the dollar, when considering the adjusted pay gap — is it even worth taking note? The short answer is yes. Though the difference is small, it is statistically significant. And that small change adds up over time.

According to Glassdoor’s study, women who earn between $40,000 to $100,000 per year will respectively lose tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a 30-year career. And this loss in pay is often compounded — a smaller initial salary will result in proportionally smaller raises, leaving women struggling to play catch-up with their male counterparts throughout their careers. And, we know that the gap grows as workers age, so that small gap you start with in your career grows to a larger gap towards the end. Dr. Chamberlain’s study found that workers aged 18-24 start with a 2.2 percent adjusted pay gap, but those aged 55-64 face a 10.5 percent gap — nearly double the national average.

Myth #3: “The gender pay gap is mainly due to overt discrimination.”

The pay gap often evokes the idea of a greedy, malicious employer intentionally offering a woman less money than her male counterparts simply because of her gender, but the reality is a bit more complex. The biggest explanation of the unadjusted (76 cents on the dollar) gender pay gap is occupational sorting — the way men and women systematically sort themselves into different roles and industries.
“For example, Census figures show women make up only 26 percent of highly paid chief executives but 71 percent of low-paid cashiers,” Chamberlain says.

There’s also evidence to suggest that women aren’t as likely to negotiate as men (or as successful when they do so) and that women are disproportionately expected to bear the brunt of child-rearing and housework, which can make maintaining full working hours difficult.

Myth #4: “The gender pay gap is women’s fault — they just need to choose higher paying jobs and negotiate more aggressively.”

Blaming women as individuals for the pay gap is largely an oversimplification of the issue. Take the phenomenon of women entering lower-paying jobs, for example. Women are often implicitly discouraged from lucrative fields like math and science as early on as elementary school, and later on, may drop out due to hostile learning or working environments.

Beyond that, the gender pay gap even within the same professions can be significant. Glassdoor data has shown whopping adjusted gender pay gaps of 28.3 percent for computer programmers, 28.1 percent for dentists and 27.7 percent for C-level executives. Similarly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women’s weekly earnings fluctuated between 56.7 percent and 91.3 percent of men’s weekly earnings depending on the industry.

When it comes to salary negotiation, there are also several social factors working against women. For one, they tend to be discouraged from owning their accomplishments, a key tactic in successful negotiation. They also typically face a greater “social cost” from negotiation — that is, they are more likely to face blowback and repercussions from their colleagues after negotiating.

With all that taken into consideration, it’s clear that the path to achieving equal pay is a bit more complex than just taking initiative.

Myth #5: “There’s nothing we can do to fix the pay gap.”

There may be a number of intricate, deep-seated economic and social factors at play when it comes to the gender pay gap, but there are an equal number of actions that all of us can take to help level the playing field.

Employers, for example, can “specifically [target] gender diversity in traditionally female roles” to “help address one of the root causes,” Chamberlain suggests. They can also promote greater pay transparency, which “can help eliminate unjustified pay gaps by bringing attention to pay disparities, and [spark] workplace conversations about pay that can have a lasting effect on company culture.”

For female employees, the greatest asset in the fight for equal pay is knowledge. Knowing what you deserve to earn and then preparing to state your case for a raise can help set you up for success, as can holding regular conversations with your peers and leadership about gender equality in the workplace.

By current estimates, we’ll close the gender pay gap in 170 years — but if everyone chips in, who knows? We may just see it change in our lifetime.

This article was originally published on Glassdoor. It is adapted with permission.

Join the Discussion

4 Responses to “5 Things We Still Get Wrong About the Gender Pay Gap”

  1. Janet Martin

    I read this and also attempted to take the quiz that was linked but had few answers pertinent to me or my life situation. i chose to work in education first and libraries later. Now retired, I never made a lot of money, but my husband’s professional choices contributed more to our family finances, leaving me free to work in jobs I loved. I earned–in every position–as much or more as men with similar education in my job categories. There was never any gap. To make less money was my choice, although I was actively discouraged from science related career directions when I was in college during the early 60s

  2. Dee

    The biggest thing we get wrong seems to me to be not filing class action suits by sector, or however that needs to go – I am not a lawyer. When I think of how much money i have IRRETRIEVABLY MISSED OUT ON OVER A MORE THAN 40 YEAR CAREER (and still working) it makes so angry I could pop a blood vessel. That’s over a million dollars (roughly speaking) that my 401 K will never ever see. Money I can’t leave my daughter to give her the advantages she will need to put her life together the way she should be able to. And yes, I get that the legacy I will be left with is to make sure she gets what she is worth, but that doesn’t respond to the issue the way we need.

    No, wait. Better yet. It’s not like we don’t know exactly how much $$ we are missing!

    WE NEED REPARATIONS. How ’bout that?

  3. Edgar

    Anyone working on compensations will tell you that people on your position earn between $X and $Y. Everything in that range is considered normal. If the highest paid executives are mostly males and then the adjusted difference is so small that means that below the highest paid executives women are making more than men… I am sure if that happens there will be multiple explanations on how this is normal…

  4. Ashley Kaiser

    Here’s another element to consider: the same job might be (unofficially) called one thing for a woman, and another thing for a man, and people get put in boxes, making it harder to overcome the stigma of perceived “lower level” roles. Consider “assistants/admins” (aka “secretaries”) or project managers. The reality is that the work may be very similar between the two roles at many companies/departments, in terms of job scope and skill level, but rarely do we see male admins. Project managers can be certified and make good six figure salaries, while admins tend to be lower level, even hourly, employees. It would be interesting to see a study done not only on the titles and salaries, but the actual work being done, to see how compensation does or does not balance out between the genders.