Women, on average, make less than men, a differential commonly known as the wage gap. Although significant changes in the status of women in society occurred since the phenomenon was identified, the gap still persists in the 21st century. Currently, women earn about 77 cents for a man’s dollar.
Causes for the continuing gap include continuing discrimination on the part of employers (and schools and training programs); differential socialization patterns leading to constrained choices of occupations by men and by women; differential, patriarchal family responsibilities of men and women; and, to a waning degree, different human capital.
Social and individual consequences to this continuing inequality can be grave. Women may not be able to support themselves and any children they have, and so may be dependent on men (who may be abusive) or dependent on the state. Women and their children are the largest proportion of the poor, including the working poor.
In 1979, the ratio of women’s earnings to men’s was 62.1 (median weekly earnings of full-time workers 25 years and older). Presently, it is 81.0. In dollar terms, that is a gain of 19 cents in 27 years, closing about half the gap. The wage gap also shows itself by race. African American women earn about 88 percent of what African American men earn, but only about 70 percent of what all men earn. Union members typically have a smaller male-female wage gap than do non-union members.
Some scholars point to differences in human capital as an explanation of the wage gap. Although women significantly increased their education and employment experience in recent decades, even for college-educated women, the gap remains although it too has improved. In 1979, female college graduates earned about 67 cents for every dollar a male earned; that figure is now approximately 81 cents. For those with only a high school education, the figures respectively are about 60 cents and 74 cents. Ironically, female high school graduates gained more relative to men than female college graduates, so increased education appears not to reduce the gap. Some analysts suggest that much of the decrease in the wage gap is due to the decreasing real wages of men, especially high school-educated men. Well-paid jobs for male high school graduates in manufacturing are disappearing.
In 1963, the federal Equal Pay Act became law, forbidding employers to pay different wages to men and to women doing the same job. However, by and large, men and women did not then, and do not today, do the same job. High levels of occupational sex segregation persist. Women still work largely with other women doing “women’s work,” whether professional-level work or unskilled labor. Men still work largely with other men. Even where there has been significant gender integration, ghettoization often occurs within the occupation. For example, female physicians are more likely to be pediatricians than surgeons, and pediatricians make less.
Women’s work pays less, regardless of who is doing the work. Men doing women’s work, although paid less than men doing “men’s work,” are paid more, on average, than women in the same occupation. This lower pay exists even when holding constant the skills, responsibilities, and adverse working conditions that the job requires. Considerable research exists showing that comparable jobs pay less if they are dominated by women workers.
What accounts for occupational sex segregation? Women learn what work is appropriate for them, partly by observing what women do in the world. So, existing segregation feeds segregated expectations and occupational aspirations. Stereotypes of gender-appropriate work remain strong, and women hold them as well as men. Further, school guidance counselors and employers also hold these stereotypes. Women employed in male-dominated occupations frequently experience sexual harassment by supervisors and peers. Women are often not mentored to the same degree as men. Thus, women tend to leave male-dominated occupations even when they initially gain access.
Women and men—and employers—still have expectations about women’s family responsibilities; women still have the greatest burden for child care, thereby limiting their occupational choices by that responsibility. Mothers may look for part-time work, may have their work careers interrupted by childbearing, and may look for work that coincides with the school day or school year. Even if women do not “choose” such work, it may be chosen for them. Women may not be offered training or promotion opportunities if employers perceive them to be more attuned to the needs of the children/family than the needs of their careers. This phenomenon has been termed “the mommy track.”
The existence of a “glass ceiling” is well documented. Much research shows that employers (and other citizens) value male over female applicants for many positions, particularly those that require leadership skills. Discrimination against women at work may be more subtle than it was in the 1960s and before, but it persists.
Both the 1963 Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the 1964 Equal Rights Act have been successfully used to sue specific employers for discrimination and wage disparities. However, this is a costly and time-consuming effort. Such legal remedies have not been entirely effective in changing the social structure of gender inequalities that led to the wage gap in the first place.
Much of the work on this issue, both scholarly and political, was done in the 1980s and 1990s when U.S. activists initiated pay equity studies in cities and states across the country. However, the implementation of such studies and the remedy of discovered inequality were often incomplete. In Canada, a stronger labor movement and richer history of social reform led to more proactive efforts to address the wage gap. There, too, results were mixed and often incomplete. At the present time, that reform fervor of the past has largely waned.
- Blau, Francine, Mary C. Brinton, and David B. Grusky, eds. 2006. The Declining Significance of Gender? New York: Russell Sage.
- S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. September 2007. “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2006.” Report 1000. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved March 30, 2017 (https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-earnings/archive/womensearnings_2006.pdf).
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