The F Word: Feminism and the Wage Gap

Opinion by Haley Sims
Feb. 20, 2014, 11:21 p.m.

Yes. I’m talking about feminism. Don’t groan and roll your eyes. I know what you’re thinking: “If I have to read one more article about how women are treated unfairly, I’m going to poke my eyes out!” Believe me—that’s how I used to feel every time I saw the word “feminism.”

I had this picture of feminists as crazy androgynous bra burners and breast beaters shouting about how women are constantly treated unfairly in today’s world, replacing the regal Elizabeth Cady Stantons and Susan B. Anthonys of old. But this image I had conjured was extremely far removed from the truth. Any movement will have radicals, but feminism itself isn’t so revolutionary: Feminism in my not so humble opinion is simply the idea that women should seek equal rights.

So is it still relevant today? Absolutely. But it might be focused on the wrong issues. One of the most well-known and publicized rallying points for feminists is the gender wage gap that exists in the United States. There are so many statistics and misleading information surrounding this topic that it’s hard to make sense of it. Are women really making less than men? And if so, how can we fix it?

In the 60s, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Equal Pay Act ended a large amount of discrimination in the workplace based on gender. However, it’s no secret that a wage gap still continues to exist between men and women, and, at surface level, the gap appears to be closing, but a significant disparity still exists. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center concluded that in 2012 women ages 25-34 were making hourly wages that were 93 percent of those of men. So women are making less, right?

What is probably more confusing about this is the fact that women are now more likely to earn an advanced degree than men. Among women ages 25-32 in 2013, 38 percent are likely to have a bachelor’s degree compared with 31 percent of men. So if women are attaining on the whole a higher level of education than men, why are they still being paid less?

Part of this answer can be found in the types of jobs women hold and the areas in which women earn their degrees. Women are more likely to hold lower-paying “pink collar” jobs such as teaching, childcare, nursing, waitressing and secretaries. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these professions, but the unfortunate truth is, they generally pay less than male-dominated jobs.

Another and probably more significant explanation for this difference is the fact that women are more likely to leave their jobs or reduce their hours in order to care for family members. The Pew Research Center reports that 27 percent of mothers say they quit their jobs for family reasons while only 10 percent of men have.

Women are indeed more likely to put family first at the expense of work life. And this departure can compound itself, as once women leave the workforce they are often likely to never return—or if they do return, they may work less or with less vigor. In comparable careers, this means women will be earning less and less relative to men as time goes on since their male counterparts might keep ascending the ranks. This is probably where most of the wage gap between men and women comes from.

You might argue, “But, see that’s a choice. Both women and men have the freedom to choose if and when to leave their work.” This is true. But why are women doing it so much more often? This gets at a much deeper question about gender roles, cultural norms and each family’s personal decisions. The process of caring for a new child is inherently different for men than for women and expectations about childcare are different as well. Many would agree that, for the first few weeks of an infant’s life, a mother must be a constant presence to care for the child—feed it, put it to sleep, make sure it is safe.

Technically, though, a mother is only absolutely needed to help a child breastfeed. And conflicting research even exists about how important breastfeeding is in a child’s development. A 2010 study conducted by NYU and backed by the National Science Foundation analyzed numerous extant studies about single-mother, single-father, gay and lesbian parent households. The result: there is little to no evidence of any “gender-based parenting abilities.” There is nothing to say that a mother needs to be at home to raise her children.

What does matter, however, is the amount of love and care a parent provides for their children. A father could provide either of these just as well as a mother, which means that something exists in much of our society that propagates and encourages women’s beliefs that they must be the ones taking the lead in raising a child in its early years.

So how can we combat this phenomenon where women are leaving the workforce en masse? One suggestion offered is for the United States to offer more paid maternity leave. The United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not, by law, offer paid maternity leave. Women are offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave, albeit provided only if the company is large enough, and companies may sometimes provide paid leave if they choose. But as of 2011, only 28 percent of women employed reported having access to paid maternity leave.

However, there are also studies that show that in many countries where paid leave is offered, the gap between the earnings of men and women is even larger than it is in the United States. So this doesn’t seem to be a truly optimal solution. Furthermore, our country has enough economic problems already—how could we support mandatory paid maternity leave? I think what would truly be required is changes in the way people fundamentally think about women in the workforce and child rearing.

This column is the first in a two-part series. The second part will run in two weeks.

Contact Haley Sims at [email protected]

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