A Partial Fix for Closing the Wage Gap: End Segregation in the Labor Market

by Barbara Gault

So, the wage gap is still going strong, even though women have surpassed men in terms of number of higher degrees received. Women are now more likely than men to get bachelors’ degrees, master’s degrees, and Ph.D.’s. Is it just a matter of needing time to catch up?

According to recent IWPR statistics, at the current rate of change it will take until 2056, or 45 more years, until we see equality. How do we accelerate change? One method is to equalize access to high paying jobs.

As IWPR’s new fact sheet, shows, the most common jobs for men and women are quite different. Of the ten most common jobs for men and women, there is overlap in only one. The best paid professions which are more common to  men are Chief Executive Officer (CEO), computer software engineer, and manager; the best paid professions more common for women are accountants, registered nurses, and elementary and middle school teachers. In the ten lowest paid occupations, close to two-thirds of workers are women, and in the highest paid occupations, two-thirds of workers are men. The proportion of women who are machinists, carpenters, and electricians hovered at below 10 percent between 1972 and 2009. Fewer than 10 percent of civil engineers were women in 2009.

And sex segregation is not improving. The index of dissimilarity, a tool that economists use to measure the degree of sex segregation overall in the labor market, found that in the 37 year period between 1972 and 2009 we saw progress in this area for the first 25 years, and then progress essentially dropped off starting in 1996 and continues to stagnate.

Women’s representation in some high paying fields, notably computer science, has actually gotten worse. Segregation in the labor force is a natural by-product of sex segregation in educational focus. Whereas in 1989 women were more than 30.2 percent of computer science bachelor degree recipients, in 2008 they were only 17.6 percent. Similarly, the proportion of math bachelor degree recipients that were women dropped in that same time period, from 46 to 43 percent. Engineering bachelor degrees increased, but only slightly, from 15.2 to 18.5 percent. On the other hand, women receive more than 70 percent of psychology degrees, and they are also the vast majority of degree holders in education.

We see the same gendered patterns in receipt of associates’ degrees. The percentage of women receiving associates degrees in computer and information sciences, engineering and engineering technology, and math and science, all dropped between 1997 and 2007.

An analysis released by IWPR yesterday found that of 111 occupations for which we had sufficient data, women earned less than men in 107 of them. These within-occupation wage gaps do reflect pure discrimination, but sex segregation can of course occur even within occupations. One of the largest wage gaps we found was in retail sales, where women only earn 64.7 percent of what men earn. 

In the Walmart vs. Betty Dukes case currently before the Supreme Court we hear stories of differential retail sales assignments being used as a justification for paying men more (men work in the tools department, which pays more, and women work in the cosmetics department, which pays less).

To end occupational segregation and the wage gap, there are clear steps that employers, policymakers, and even teachers and parents can take:

  • Education: Encourage girls and women to go into nontraditional, higher paying jobs.   The National Girls Collaborative provides access to an array of programs encouraging girls to pursue careers in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
  • Unionization: Improve access to unions.  Unionized jobs have lower wage gaps.
  • Enforcement: Address issues contributing to hostile work environments through Department of Labor and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) interventions in order to eradicate this problem. Investigate common occupations with the highest sex segregation, and those with most profound wage gaps, as these are likely to be hotbeds of harassment and hostility.
  • Awareness: Address the unequal division of caregiving work.  The recent White House Women in America report found that women still do more housework and child care work, allowing men to spend more time at paid work and leisure.  IWPR’s research found that even teen girls shoulder an unfair burden of care for siblings and housework, while boys spend more time at leisure.
  • Support: Build greater family supports for workers and learners, including expanding support for student parents, who make up roughly a quarter of students at colleges and universities.
  • Development: Think of ending inequality as a key component of sustainable community development by working to make communities family friendly: include child care as a part of city and state economic development plans, and co-locate child care with public transportation and housing.  For ideas like these, check out the Cornell University’s website on child care and economic development with useful tools including those for assessing the economic development importance of child care to communities.
  • Advocacy: We need a whole new wave of kitchen table advocacy and consciousness-raising on the pervasiveness of sex discrimination.   Some argue that Walmart shouldn’t be held responsible for sex discrimination because the problem is too widespread throughout the whole society.  We somehow managed to desegregate schools and universities even though segregation was widespread at one point in our history. We need to approach unequal pay the same way.
  • Communication: The Paycheck Fairness Act was not passed this year, which would have outlawed retribution for sharing salary information – but we can use the anonymity of the Internet to share such information with one another through discussion forums, blogs and social media.  Also, women need to join forces to address the unequal distribution of labor within the home.
  • Negotiation: And we do need to negotiate, but not because it will make us any allies in the short term, but as a form of advocacy.  When women negotiate like men, it is not always met with a warm reception.  Negotiate as an act of solidarity, so that  we’ll all get used to it, and gradually shift our stereotypes of how nice women workers are supposed to act.

Barbara Gault is the Executive Director and Vice President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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