During the first few years of my journey as a feminist, I was introduced to the gender wage gap through a sensationalist tweet that had many people throwing ideas around. As a teenager, I didn’t yet have the critical thinking skills to understand the intricacies of larger societal issues, so I thought the gender wage gap was because of some old guy in a top hat deciding that women shouldn’t earn as much as men. Due to my misunderstanding, I decided that I would simply work somewhere where I would be paid the same wage as men. I find it funny now because I’ve come a long way since then, but not everyone has the chance to get into the depths of the topic. So, for those of you who aren’t sure why women still don’t earn the same as men, stick around to find out the basics of the topic.
What is the gender wage gap?
You may have first heard of the gender pay gap with the infamous statistic from the United States, which reveals that American women earn 83 cents for each dollar earned by men. While this statistic is very catchy, the story is a little more complicated than that, and we’ll get to that soon.
You may have even heard some of your favourite actresses lament about the fact that they don’t earn as much as their co-stars. John Heywood, a labour economist from the United States, found that actresses in major movie productions can expect to earn $1 million less than actors on average. Even when women are the main characters of a series, equal pay isn’t guaranteed. Ellen Pompeo, who plays Meredith Grey on the series Grey’s Anatomy, revealed in an interview that she wasn’t paid more than her costar Patrick Dempsey until he left the show in 2015. Similarly, when Sony’s servers were hacked in 2017, it was revealed that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams received less backends — the amount of profit that the actors get after the movie is released — than their male costars despite sharing similar screentime.
To first introduce you to the topic, I want you to keep in mind that the gender wage gap can be summarized as the average difference in income over a lifetime (or a year) for men and women.
Unfortunately, social scientists don’t have enough data yet to look into how the job market affects the earnings of people who don’t fit in the gender binary, which categorizes people as either men or women. This article may refer to people as men and women, but the data used in these studies tends to include non–cisgender people too. Because of the lack of diverse gender representation in current studies, I can’t provide an analysis of the gender wage gap that includes the experiences of everyone in the labour market (which points to a larger issue within economics). However, I hope to touch upon as many points as the available data allows, beginning with some myths.
Firstly, let’s debunk the belief that “women just choose the lower-earning fields.”
If you’ve brought up anything related to the gender wage gap at a dinner table, your point may have been shrugged off as something along the lines of “Women just choose jobs that pay less.” X user @reeces aptly summarized the irony of this topic back in 2020 in the tweet:
“The wage gap isn’t real. Men just tend to go for higher paying jobs, like doctor, engineer and CEO. Whereas women go for lower paying jobs like female doctor, female engineer and female CEO.”
There are many women in lower-paying jobs, particularly in the service industry. But the statement that women “choose” to receive a lower salary ignores that many women are pushed towards more flexible and secure positions that may offer less pay due to upstanding gender roles. The people who patriarchal cultures deem responsible for making dinner and helping the children with homework can’t afford the Suits lifestyle of working until 3 a.m. and returning to the office at 8 a.m.
In many households, women are still the primary caretakers for their families. Even if women do make it to higher-earning jobs, such as doctors or engineers, those who are the primary caretakers still aren’t able to impress their managers with how dedicated they are to the company because they have to rush out of work when their four-year-old has a fever. This is not to say that only mothers pick up their children; however, there continues to be a pattern of women valuing their commute time when making the decision to apply for a job. If women continue to feel more responsible than their partners for household responsibilities, the gender wage gap isn’t likely to change significantly. I’d like to note here that I’m not making the argument that valuing housework is a bad thing or that mothers shouldn’t care about their homes. Rather, I think that it’s time to have conversations in each household about sharing responsibilities.
This dialogue also leads to the infamous glass ceiling concept, which is often thrown around when people discuss the gender wage gap.
The “glass ceiling” refers to the systemic barriers which keep women from being promoted to managerial positions that seem just within reach.
Many male-identifying readers may be frustrated by being implicated in the gender wage gap. “Hey, I wouldn’t expect my partner to always care for the house. We would go 50/50,” you may say. And hey, props to you! However, even if women were able to overcome their imposter syndrome — which means doubting one’s own abilities when they are in a situation outside their comfort zone — and societal stereotypes, jobs which are “higher paying” wouldn’t remain this way once women entered the sector.
Many jobs lose their market value when women enter the workforce. As devaluation theory suggests, jobs perceived as feminine tend to pay less. This is true for many sectors traditionally associated with women, such as in the service industry, which causes the people working within them to earn less on average. So, no matter what your gender is, your job may be perceived as less valuable simply because you may have more female coworkers than other jobs.
In addition, people who give birth require time for their bodies to recover from it. I see no need to go into the details of how gory birth can be, but if you’ve seen the list of why some people are choosing to avoid childbirth (also known as “the girl with the list”), you know that it is not easy. But most of all, childcare doesn’t end with a small leave of absence. The first few months of birth require a lot of attention that is hard to afford if you’re not the one giving it. As a result, many couples prefer to have one of the parents stay home with the child for a while. Though this is great for the child’s development, the person who stays at home can struggle with their skills related to work depreciating during the leave. Furthermore, compared to someone who doesn’t take leave, the parent who was away from the workforce for a year is less likely to be picked for a promotion again. As such, many of the reasons for the gender wage gap are still due to modern gender roles. However, these aren’t the only reasons.
Let’s return to the 83 cents on the dollar analogy and who this statement represents. This statistic only reflects the average woman in the United States. In 2020, a Black woman was expected to earn 64 cents on the dollar, while a Hispanic woman was expected to earn 57 cents on a man’s dollar. Meanwhile, in Canada, the average woman who is from a racialized background makes 59.3 per cent of what a white man makes. Nothing speaks to the systemic aspect of the gender wage gap as much as the impact of race on the gender wage gap. In North America, race is a fundamental form of discrimination from housing to education, and so it follows that systemic discrimination is mirrored in earnings.
While women from racialized backgrounds may be offered less money on a job offer, the larger problem is the systemic issues which continue to affect racial minorities. People who are of racialized backgrounds are more likely to face barriers to attending higher education or having access to specialized training. For women who have not just systemic racism but also the patriarchy working against them, this effect is amplified. We can provide many policy ideas for tackling gender inequality, but we can never achieve true equality if we don’t also address the systemic issues affecting racialized people who are not cisgender men.
The gender wage gap is unfortunately not something that can be solved with one policy, just as systemic discrimination can’t be solved with one policy. In fact, there are even more reasons that I couldn’t dive into here which impact the earnings of men and women. If you are a student interested in the topic, you have the amazing power to work in research relating to the systemic issues which cause the gender wage gap, no matter which discipline you’re in. Even if you graduate and leave academia, you can always remain politically active and encourage local and international representatives to push policies aimed at helping those affected by inequalities. Most importantly, though, if you are among the group likely to be offered a lower entry wage, make sure you do your market research and negotiate your offer if it’s less than you expect.
Discomfort and embarrassment are just what comes with going against the grain, but advocating for yourself is the most important thing you can do after all!