The text 'Mind the gap' over a feminine gender symbol.

Mind the Gap!

For all the laudable progress made by the feminist movement thus far, the gender pay gap still remains a thorny problem. Defined by the OECD as ‘the difference between median earnings of men and women relative to median earnings of men’, research conducted by United Nations Women shows that worldwide, women only make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Such stubborn inequality persists because women’s work is often undervalued and under-renumerated in our current capitalist structure, and because women tend to be concentrated in different jobs than men.

Despite significant evidence that such a gender wage gap exists, many still deny the fact that this poses a problem. A common argument goes: it is now illegal to pay men and women differently for the same jobs, so the gender wage gap does not exist anymore! Another argument goes: women simply choose jobs that pay less, and women choose to drop out of the labour market — thus, any difference in average earnings between men and women is simply a result of women making unfortunate decisions that limit their incomes.

Many still deny the fact that this poses a problem

Let’s examine each of these arguments in turn. Firstly, a point of definitional clarification is needed here: there are two types of gender pay gaps, namely the controlled and the uncontrolled gap. The controlled gap measures the difference in pay between men and women performing the same job, with the same experience and qualifications; the uncontrolled gap represents the overall difference in pay between men and women, considering all the jobs and industries in which they work. The former has largely been ameliorated, as it is indeed true that most countries have outlawed explicit gendered discrimination. However, the gap has not completely closed yet, so some work remains to be done.

As for the uncontrolled gap, it is often dismissed by men who profess that women simply choose jobs that pay less because they prefer ‘easier’ jobs, or because they would rather work part-time and look after their kids at home. For the first point, it is indeed true that women are concentrated in low-paid, highly feminised sectors. But we must ask: why are these jobs paid so badly? Why is a teacher paid far less than a trader, even if they work the same number of hours a week or have the same qualifications?

The way that our economy is structured means that the jobs that women are socialised into choosing are renumerated and valued less, even if their social utility is higher. We most certainly need structural change to combat that.

It is often dismissed by men who profess that women simply choose jobs that pay less

As to the second point, most of the gender pay gaps can be traced to ‘child penalties’, or more specifically, the ‘motherhood penalty’. The average earnings of men are almost completely unaffected by parenthood, but women’s earnings fall sharply when they become parents. The Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that seven years after the birth of a first child, women’s earnings are on average less than half of men’s, even if there was a negligible gender wage gap before children. Nobel Prize winner and Harvard economist Claudia Goldin argues that closing this wage gap remains ‘frustratingly out of reach’ because of ‘greedy jobs’ and parenting norms.

Such ‘greedy jobs’ refer to high-paying, high-pressure jobs in sectors such as law, finance, and consulting, which are impossible to balance with childcare. Ultimately, this means that one parent needs to be available in the home, which is unfortunately most often the woman. To combat this problem, Goldin argues that ‘couple’s equity’ is necessary, encouraged by policies such as family-friendly working arrangements, improved childcare and paternity leave, as well as changes in cultural norms surrounding fathers’ roles in the home.

Why should we care about the gender pay gap? For one, a lifetime of income inequality is created between men and women — a 20-year-old woman just starting full-time work stands to lose USD 407K over a 40-year career compared to her male counterpart. This is a sizeable amount which can greatly affect retirement plans and lifetime wealth. And the fact that women’s earnings plateau mid-career, while men’s continue to climb, is one reason why widowed, divorced, and single women experience higher rates of poverty in old age. This is why we should mind the gap — and make it a policy priority to close it.


Image: London Student Feminists via Wikimedia Commons