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Gender Pay Inequity a Cause for Alarm

Why do Women Get Paid Less than Men?

You’ve probably heard that men are paid more than women are paid over their lifetimes. But what does that mean? Are women paid less because they choose lower-paying jobs? Is it because more women work part time than men do? Or is it because women have more care-giving responsibilities?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) believes it will take another 118 years - or until 2133 - until the global pay gap between men and women is finally closed. Women are only now earning the amount that men did in 2006, data from the WEF’s Global Gender Gap report WEF's Global Gender Gap report says.

It says progress on closing the gap has stalled in recent years at a time when more women are entering the workplace. In fact, nearly a quarter of a billion more women are in the global workforce today than a decade ago.

Over the last decade one of the most dramatic changes has been in education. In fact, the report shows that a reverse gender gap is emerging in higher education, with more women in university than men in 98 countries.

According to recent reports, the gender pay gap is widening again because men’s earnings are growing in 2015 at twice the rate of women’s. Moreover, the median weekly earnings for full-time male workers was $889 in the third quarter of 2014, according to the Labor Department. That’s a 2.2% increase from a year earlier. Meanwhile, full-time female workers’ earnings were $721, up 0.8% from a year earlier.

The latest data marks the third straight quarter that the increase in male earnings was at least double that of female workers. As a result, women who work full time earned 81.1 cents for every dollar a man earned from July through September. That’s down more than a penny from a year earlier. The trend suggests the narrowing of the pay gap may have at least temporarily stalled this year.

Median weekly earnings of full-time female workers were 83.5% of equivalent male earnings in the second quarter of 2014, the narrowest pay gap on record back to 1979, according to that measure.

One factor driving the wider gap this year is increasing pay for men in higher-wage, professional fields. Median weekly pay for men working full time in professional jobs, a category that includes engineers, lawyers and teachers, was $1,345 in the third quarter, up 7.4% from a year earlier. Similar women earned $970 a week, a 2.2% increase from a year earlier.

But even when women work the same jobs as men, and when men work at traditionally female occupations, women often earn less. For example, women supervisors of retail sales workers earn 79 percent of what their male counterparts make; women nurses earn 88 percent of what male nurses make; and male elementary and middle school teachers earn 9 percent more than their female colleagues.

Of course sometimes women get paid less because they are less skilled, less educated, or less experienced workers relative to men (this is called the human capital explanation). This is particularly an issue for mothers. Unavailability of quality affordable childcare in combination with women’s lower wages means that in many families it makes sense for the mother to leave the workforce. Women who reenter the workforce after an extended period of child-rearing lack current work experience and job skills leading to depressed wages.

The inequity goes beyond pay. According to the Council of Economic Advisers Issue Brief that was published in April 2015, women are also slightly less likely than men to have access to paid leave and, perhaps as a result, are slightly more likely to take leave without pay. The gap in paid leave is particularly large among workers without a college education: among these workers, 52 percent of men, but only 44 percent of women, have access to paid leave.

These broader measures of compensation show that the pay gap is not just about differences in earnings or wages: on numerous dimensions – in access to employer-provided health insurance or pensions and paid leave, women’s compensation falls short of men’s.

But why do women earn less than men? Some people point to women’s choices, some people point to discrimination, and some people point to differences in men and women’s experience and education. There is no single answer.

The gender wage gap should concern us because it is evidence we do not have a gender-equal society. But is not just a women’s issue. Like most women’s issues, it’s a family and children’s issue as well. Many families rely on a woman’s income, and some can’t survive or thrive unless she makes a fair wage.

What can we do about the gender wage gap? Enforcing and strengthening existing legislation (such as the Paycheck Fairness Act) and increasing the availability of affordable high-quality childcare would certainly help. Reducing gender occupational segregation is another important part of the solution.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) suggest that women should pay attention to the salaries associated with college majors and occupations and think about the long-term financial implications of their career decisions. They also recommend that women seek union jobs and do research on typical salaries for a job so that they can better negotiate salary.

But the truth of the matter though is that until the gendered stereotypes that lead to gendered occupational roles diminish even further, until we stop seeing women’s employment and jobs as supplements to a family’s income, until we stop insisting that we can’t support ameliorative efforts because it will “hurt business,” and until we stop devaluing “women’s work” relative to “men’s work,” the gap will persist.

These are ethical concerns because they deal with fundamental issues of fairness. Those who do equal jobs should be paid equally. Those who do unequal jobs should be paid unequally. This basic notion of justice is what underlies my concern about the disturbing trend of a widening of the gender pay gap.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 26, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: