Women’s median annual earnings stubbornly remain about 20 percent below men’s. Why is progress stalling?
It may come down to this troubling reality, new research suggests: Work done by women simply isn’t valued as highly.
That sounds like a truism, but the academic work behind it helps explain the pay gap’s persistence even as the factors long thought to cause it have disappeared. Women, for example, are now better educated than men, have nearly as much work experience and are equally likely to pursue many high-paying careers. No longer can the gap be dismissed with pat observations that women outnumber men in lower-paying jobs like teaching and social work.
A new study from researchers at Cornell University found that the difference between the occupations and industries in which men and women work has recently become the single largest cause of the gender pay gap, accounting for more than half of it. In fact, another study shows, when women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before.
Consider the discrepancies in jobs requiring similar education and responsibility, or similar skills, but divided by gender. The median earnings of information technology managers (mostly men) are 27 percent higher than human resources managers (mostly women), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. At the other end of the wage spectrum, janitors (usually men) earn 22 percent more than maids and housecleaners (usually women).
Once women start doing a job, “It just doesn’t look like it’s as important to the bottom line or requires as much skill,” said Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University. “Gender bias sneaks into those decisions.”
She is a co-author of one of the most comprehensive studies of the phenomenon, using United States census data from 1950 to 2000, when the share of women increased in many jobs. The study, which she conducted with Asaf Levanon, of the University of Haifa in Israel, and Paul Allison of the University of Pennsylvania, found that when women moved into occupations in large numbers, those jobs began paying less even after controlling for education, work experience, skills, race and geography.
And there was substantial evidence that employers placed a lower value on work done by women. “It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance,” Ms. England said. “It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.”