It’s 2018. Why is there a gender wage gap?

The students enrolled in an Electrical and Computer Engineering course at the University of Arizona are primarily men. Photo by Gloria Knott/Arizona Sonora News Service

The gender wage gap is many things. It’s the occupation women choose. It’s the education women pursue. It’s the statistical motherly traits women possess.

But after all that, there’s still a percentage of the wage gap, sometimes as much as 38 percent, that remains inexplicable to researchers. This is often deemed simply. It’s discrimination. 

The National Partnership for Women and Families said the wage gap equates to $840 million annually to women in the United States. In 2017, the organization found that, on average, women are paid 80 cents to the man’s dollar.

The wage gap is a bit better in Arizona, with women being paid 83 cents to the man’s dollar.

“We try to think of everything we can actually measure,” said Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, an associate professor in sociology at Ohio State University. “But there’s always that part that isn’t explained by what we did. A lot of people interpret that leftover work as gender discrimination.”

“What’s left, maybe that’s pure discrimination,” said Todd Neumann, Ph.D. lecturer in economics at the University of Arizona. “Maybe it’s bargaining. I think that’s what a lot of researching is looking into now.”

Inexplicable percentage aside, the largest portion of the wage gap stems from occupational differences.

“The most persuasive educational explanation of gender income inequality is that women major in fields that lead to jobs that are not rewarded with higher incomes,” Bobbitt-Zeher said in her 2007 research

She found that women received 20 percent of engineering degrees in 2000-2001, compared to 77 percent of education degrees. Both of these fields are paid incredibly different, accounting for a good portion of the gap.

“The big thing is: Why are the jobs that pay more, the ones that men tend to go into?” Bobbitt-Zeher said in an interview.

She said it’s what society deems more valuable. Jobs involving nurturance are often paid less.

Chris Alksnis, psychology professor at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, said there’s a stigma around what women can and can’t do, which creates a toxic environment. Alksnis’ 2008 research found that positions with male-like traits earned a higher salary.

In a study from 2000, Marion Hersh of the University of Glasgow said that female engineering students tend to change majors due to isolation and a lack of support. She said that women — both students and those in the engineering workforce — are worried about sexual harassment and discrimination.

A Computer Science class at the University of Arizona is taught to more than 150 students, the majority being men. According to Lawrence University psychology professor Peter Glick, computer programming used to be a female-dominant field with low pay, but as the field became more profitable, men entered the field and salaries rose. Photo by Gloria Knott/Arizona Sonora News Service

Bobbitt-Zeher said a person’s educational background also holds a part in the wage gap. Smaller factors include test scores and the prestige of the university attended.

Bobbitt-Zeher’s research said that on average, college-educated men in their mid-20s earned $7,000 more than college-educated women of the same age. Even when the men and women were virtually the same, women were paid $4,436 less.

But when a man and a woman are in the same occupation at the same company with the same level of education from the same type of college and have the same test scores or grades, why is the woman still paid less?

According to Bobbitt-Zeher, it’s called the wage penalty for motherhood. On average, she said women with children make 10 to 15 percent less than women without children.

“What studies tend to find is that for each child a woman has, there is a 7 percent decline in earnings,” Bobbitt-Zeher said. “Part of that comes down to employers thinking that mothers will not be as dependable.”

“Say a woman and a man go into an interview and everything about them is the same and the employer likes both of them,” Neumann said. “Statistically, they see that the woman is more likely to leave the job to have a child or care for a child.”

Neumann said in some cases, to compensate for the risk of hiring someone that could be unreliable or distracted, the woman is offered a lower salary.

“It’s statistical discrimination,” Neumann said. “It’s the assumption on behalf of the employer. It’s not reasonable as far as the individual is concerned, but it’s statistically proven as far as the employer is concerned.”

Further, when a woman interviews for a job when she already has a child, she’s offered a lower salary than her male counterpart, according to Bobbitt-Zeher. When a man interviews for a job when he already has a child, his salary isn’t usually affected. But in situations where it is affected, research shows that he could actually be offered more money.

Other parts of the wage gap are said to include personal values. In Bobbitt-Zeher’s article, it’s said that “men were more likely to feel that making a lot of money is very important in selecting a job.”

Many also argue that women settle for less because they’re not skilled negotiators.

“I think the idea that women don’t negotiate as well could be a small part of the story,” Bobbitt-Zeher said. 

In Alksnis’ work, she mentioned stereotypical “male” and “female” traits, such as men being more assertive than women.

“Sometimes, even if women display the typical ‘male’ traits, they get punished for it,” Alksnis said. “The same behaviors that you reward when men do it, you discourage for women. The stereotypes—once they’re there, they’re hard to work around.” 

In 2017, the top 10 highest-paying jobs were all male-dominant. Photo by Gloria Knott/Arizona Sonora News Service

Peter Glick, psychology professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, said that men in power often favor other men, and that men sometimes view women as less important.

But women are fed up. More and more are taking the issue to court.

In past cases, California attorney James Richardson said employers often justify lower salaries by saying the woman was a “poor performer” compared to others. 

Currently, Richardson is working with former University of Arizona dean Patricia MacCorquodale, who filed a $2 million lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents in January. She found that she was vastly underpaid compared to her male colleagues, sometimes by as much as $100,000 annually. 

In 2017, three female doctors in North Carolina sued for the same thing. Last year, a female engineer in Maryland won her lawsuit and was given more than $130,000 in lost wages, in addition to a $24,000 raise.

The million-dollar question: How can the gap be closed?

Alksnis said implementing paternity leave could help eliminate the motherhood wage penalty.

“If everyone was equally likely to take parental leave and if everybody, not just moms, had eligibility for that leave,” Alksnis said. “That could level the playing field.”

As an example, employers in Denmark offer paid paternity leave. However, a wage gap still exists, though it’s better than the gap in the United States.

Alksnis also referenced the Sunshine List in Ontario, Canada, a public file of every person who makes more than $100,000 annually. It provides transparency for employees to negotiate a fair salary.

However, Canada is also struggling with a wage gap. The Canadian Women’s Foundation reported that women made 74 cents to the man’s dollar in 2014.

Legislation can also come into play. The Equal Pay Act was signed in 1963 and was aimed toward closing the gender wage gap. At the time, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, women made 59 cents to the man’s dollar. By 2012, women made 77 cents to the man’s dollar. The committee cited the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which predicted that at this rate, women will receive equal pay in 2059.

More recently, the Pay Equity for All Act was introduced to the U.S. House in May of 2017. If passed, it would forbid employers from requesting salary history from potential employees. Individual states have enacted similar regulations, but no further action has been made federally since being introduced last year.

As for occupational differences, many organizations such as the Scientista Foundation are directed at helping young girls and women enter math and science fields.

And of course, as a society, we can continually work toward breaking typical gender roles and stereotypes.

“It will be a slow and steady process,” Alksnis said. “But it could happen.”

Gloria Knott is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

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