The first major bill that President Barack Obama signed into law echoed one of his familiar stump stories from his campaign. He told audiences about a woman named Lilly Ledbetter from Alabama who worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company from 1979 to 1998. After taking early retirement from her job as an area manager, Ledbetter discovered that she'd been duped. Goodyear had compensated her less than 15 male area managers. Ledbetter took Goodyear to court for alleged wage discrimination, and after a jury agreed with her claims, the case ended up in the Supreme Court. Citing the plaintiff's legal obligation to file the claim within 180 days of the beginning of the alleged pay discrepancy, the Supreme Court tossed Ledbetter's case in a 5-4 decision.
Instead of retreating in defeat, Ledbetter became a leading activist against wage discrimination. On Jan. 28, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanding the statute of limitations for wage discrimination lawsuits to cover when an employee discerns a pay discrepancy.
Although Ledbetter will never recover the disputed income from Goodyear, her case will serve as a legal landmark for gender-based wage discrimination. The whys and wherefores of the gender pay gap in the workplace have been inspected from all sides, but its existence is indisputable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median wage for female full-time workers in the United States was 80 percent of the male median wage in 2007 [source: BLS]. On the upside for female workers, that gap has narrowed considerably since the BLS began comparing gender wage data in 1979. Then, women made merely 62 percent of a man's median salary [source: BLS].
Despite the race to catch up, empirical data shows that the gender gap persists across age groups, races, education levels and industry sectors. Take higher education, for example. As of 2007, only 1.5 percent more men received bachelor's degrees than women [source: U.S. Census Bureau]. Yet, the average annual income of degree-holding men topped that of women by more than $26,000 [source: U.S. Census Bureau].
If women comprise 43.6 percent of the national workforce now, how does this gender gap persist?
Why Does the Gender Gap Exist?
An explanation for the gender gap doesn't just boil down to rampant sexism. It's a far more nuanced combination of economic, social and educational factors. For instance, the gender gaps between black and Hispanic workers are the narrowest in the United States. Yet, these minority groups receive the smallest median weekly income [source: BLS]. Also, among all full-time workers, the gender gap widens as the pay scale increases. Only in the bottom 25 percent of incomes do women outnumber men.
These inconsistencies begin at the industrial level. Occupational gender distribution is strongly correlated to women's wages [source: Boraas and Rodgers III]. In other words, fields that attract the most women tend to pay less. Education and healthcare industries attract about a third of female employees; the median weekly income of those sectors is $841 and $920, respectively. Roughly the same proportion of men works in computer and engineering fields, where the median weekly salary tops $1,120 [source: BLS]. Even within female-dominated sectors, men still make more money, comparatively. In 1999, a woman working in a majority female workplace earned 25.9 percent less than a woman working in a male-driven sector; a man in the same employment scenario earned only 12.5 percent less [source: Boraas and Rodgers III].
Women's heavy participation in particular fields also implies an underlying social dynamic. While the feminist movement has made significant strides in erasing gender stereotypes in the workplace, some people still perceive certain jobs as better suited for women than men. Science-related fields, which contain disproportionately high numbers of men, have strived to close their gender gaps in recent years. Such efforts appear to be taking effect, with women earning 40 percent of science and engineering Ph.D.s in 2006 [source: Angier].
At the end of the day, the people bringing home the most money are usually the ones who put in the most time. Employees who work 45 hours per week, as opposed to 40 hours, earn 44 percent more on average [source: Tischler]. The pay scale difference from working overtime could also contribute to the gender gap. According to the BLS, men in 2007 labored on the job at least 41 hours per week, while the same held for 15 percent of full-time female workers [source: BLS].
But do women spend less time on the clock due to childcare responsibilities?
Is There a Family Gap?
Statistically, men spend more time at work than women. However, concluding that men labor longer overall is incorrect. A study published in 2007 surveyed people's work habits in 25 countries, finding that men and women put in the same amount of time per day -- but for different types of work [source: Burda, Hamermesh and Weil]. Women log more hours than men working at home, and men perform more work for pay.
Domestic labor and childcare have long been sticking points in the fight to close the gender gap. By 2006, 70.6 percent of women with children under 18 were part of the labor force [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. But motherhood may limit a woman's career trajectory and resulting income more than that of women without children. That dividing line has been referred to as the family gap. Consider, for instance, that of 160,000 Ph.D. recipients in the United States, 70 percent of males were tenured professors and married with children; only 44 percent of females reported the same domestic situation [source: Angier]. The aging baby boomer population has intensified that situation for some American women, with an estimated 44 percent caring for one living parent and at least one child under 21 [source: Pierret].
Studies in the late 1990s in the United States and Britain confirmed that having children impacts pay. One study attributed 40 to 50 percent of the gender wage gap to childbirth [sources: Waldfogel]. Another study determined that American women experience a 7 percent wage penalty per child, resulting from factors such as skill loss, reduced work hours or outright discrimination [source: Budig and England]. However, a 2005 analysis of college-educated women who waited to have children after 30 found no such wage penalty [source: Amueo-Dorantes]. Therefore, higher education and delayed motherhood could alleviate the gender gap.
Employers legally cannot compensate men and women differently for the same work, according to the 1963 Equal Pay Act. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act also barred gender-based hiring and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But even with the legal floodgates opened for women to enter the workforce, research indicates that it hasn't eliminated all major hurdles for women in the workplace. Reams of data point to compensation discrepancies among men and women, but not in quality of work. For that reason, until that gap turns into a sliver and finally disappears, it will continue to resurface as a source of discontent among women workers.
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More Great Links
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- Amueo-Dorantes, Catalina and Kimmel, Jean. "The Motherhood Wage Gap for Women in the United States." Review of Economics of the Household. Vol 3. 2005.
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- "Mean Earnings of Workers 18 Years and Over, by Educational Attainment, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Sex: 1975 to 2006." U.S. Census Bureau. (Jan. 29, 2009)
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