Column: The gender pay gap is due to more than just unfair compensation

Unequal pay is due to cultural expectations about women in the workforce.

If you’re like me and not savvy when it comes to economic issues, you might be wondering what the deal is with this gender pay gap business. President Barack Obama has launched an effort to shrink the gender pay gap, which is the difference in compensation between men and women. According to the White House, women are paid 77 cents for every dollar men are paid.

But there’s a lot more to the issue than just the number, and some economists are quick to dismiss the gender pay gap as a misrepresentation of data. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published April 7, economists Mark Perry and Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute explain that the gender pay gap isn’t due to men and women being compensated differently for equal work.

Their argument is that if you control for factors that differentiate female and male workers, women are less likely to work 40-hour weeks. Women are also more likely to leave the workforce to stay home with their children, giving them fewer years of experience. And when they return, they often seek flexible positions that tend to pay less. Women also choose to study less lucrative fields, including the liberal arts and psychology, compared to men who pursue STEM and business fields. When you control for all of these, they say, the gender pay gap all but disappears.

And while all of that may be true, what this op-ed is missing is the fact that the gender pay gap is a cultural problem. All of the factors they are controlling for are crucial pieces of information that cause unequal compensation between men and women in the United States.

Most of the time, the gender pay gap is not due to employers offering lower salaries to their female employees. That is illegal. Instead, what tends to happen is women don’t negotiate for higher salaries when hired, and rarely ask for raises. Only 7 percent of women negotiate when they receive a job offer, compared to 57 percent of men. This hesitation causes a wage gap between male and female employees, and accounts for some of the $431,000 women lose over the course of their careers compared to their male co-workers.

But it’s not as easy as just asking for more money. A 2012 study found that female employees actually risk punishment at work for negotiating their salaries. When managers were asked to explain the raises they were giving, they were twice as likely to give men raises than women. So even if women were negotiating, they are always at a disadvantage to receive equal compensation.

As I’ve written previously, women aren’t studying science, technology, engineering, math and business at the same rate as men. Economists use this as an explanation for the gender pay gap, because men are entering the workforce in fields that pay more than the jobs women are seeking. But it’s simply inaccurate to assume women have all of the same opportunities men do in male-dominated fields. Women aren’t seeing other women in these fields, and it’s difficult to forge a path without a role model. Cultural expectations about women and their job prospects can also permeate as early as high school: a 2012 study found math teachers were biased against their female students, rating their math abilities lower than their male peers. So it’s no wonder women aren’t entering STEM and business fields.

Finally, the pressure for women to leave the workforce and stay home to raise their family is stronger than ever. More women chose to stay home in 2012 than they did in 1999. It’s not fair to say this decision to stay home is solely on the women. Often women choose to stay home because their partners (usually male) earn more money! Because of the gender pay gap due to all of the factors I’ve already explained, it makes more financial sense for women to stay home than men. Women never stand a chance to stay in the workforce because they never earned enough money in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle of cultural expectation.

So next time you hear about the gender pay gap, consider the deeply-rooted issues that women in the workforce face. Women are at a disadvantage from the start, and it’s going to take hard work to change the cultural expectations that women shouldn’t negotiate and can’t succeed in male-dominated fields that pay more. These causes of the gender pay gap require reprograming of our expectations for women who work.

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