Last Updated Mar 14, 2011 4:27 PM EDT
Is the gender pay gap a "complete myth"? That's what BNET blogger Steve Tobak contends in a recent post, relying on the arguments of Marty Nemko, the co-president of the National Organization for Men.
Tobak's take-home message is this: "When women make the same career choices as men, they earn the same amount as men."
The American Association of University Women (AAUW), where I work, would agree this is a very empowering message for women, and one that we would love to promote--if only it were true. Unfortunately, study after study, including AAUW's own Behind the Pay Gap, shows that even when women make the same choices as men, they earn less.
Tobak is correct in saying that some of the pay gap between men and women is due to career choices. Men and women still tend to work in different occupations, and traditionally male occupations such as engineering and home appliance repair pay more, on average, than traditionally female occupations like teaching and child care.
Whether the work of an engineer is more important or valuable than the work of a teacher is certainly debatable, but the fact is that work traditionally done by women is valued less in the marketplace than work traditionally done by men, and this accounts for part of the pay gap.
Pay Gap Shows Up Even A Year After College Graduation
Occupational segregation is by no means the whole story, however. When AAUW compared men and women who chose the same college major using U.S. Department of Education statistics, we found that just one year out of college, women working full time already earned less, on average, than their male colleagues. Among education majors, for example, women earned only 95 percent as much as their male colleagues earned, and among biological science majors, women earned just 75 percent as much as men earned one year after graduation.
In an attempt to really compare apples to apples, our research accounted not only for college major but also for occupation, industry, sector, hours worked, workplace flexibility, experience, educational attainment, enrollment status, GPA, institution selectivity, age, race/ethnicity, region, marital status, and children.
After accounting for all of these factors thought to affect earnings (whether fairly or not), we found that a 5 percent difference in the earnings of women and men one year out of college was still unexplained. A similar analysis of full-time workers 10 years after college graduation found a 12 percent unexplained difference in earnings. But an apples-to-apples comparison still doesn't provide a complete picture. Because women are much more likely than men to work part time or leave the labor force temporarily for family obligations, pay-gap numbers will always be understated.
Women More Likely to be Poor
When men and women are paid differently for comparable work, women have fewer resources to support themselves and their families, to invest in additional education for themselves and their children, and to provide for retirement. In fact, the sad truth is that women are almost twice as likely as men to live in poverty. For the 34 percent of working mothers who are their families' sole breadwinner (either because they are single parents or their spouse is unemployed or not in the labor force), the gender pay gap can contribute to poor living conditions, poor nutrition, and fewer opportunities for their children. For these women, closing the pay gap between men and women is much more than a point of pride.
Next month, AAUW will hold an Equal Pay Day event on Capitol Hill to discuss the issue and focus on solutions. Let's get real about the wage gap. Our daughters are depending on it.
Catherine Hill, Ph.D., is the director of research at AAUW, where she focuses on higher education and women's economic security. Prior to her work at AAUW, she was a researcher at the Institute for Women's Policy Research and an assistant professor at the University of Virginia. She has bachelor's and master's degrees from Cornell University and a doctorate in public policy from Rutgers University. Follow AAUW on Twitter @AAUW.