What’s behind the oft-cited 79 cent wage gap?

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Wage Gap Infographic
Infographic: Meilan Solly
Wage Gap Infographic
Infographic: Meilan Solly

Seventy-nine cents. It is a number frequently touted across the media and waved like a banner into the social battle of institutionalised sexism. According to the White House, 79 cents is earned by a woman for every dollar a man makes. Numbers in the United Kingdom display a similar disparity: the Fawcett Society places the current wage gap for full-time workers at 13.9%, a significant separation between the genders despite the legal requirement for equal pay.

These numbers, while accurate, are frequently misunderstood. A mere glance at the research into the wage gap may imply that women are being paid less than men for performing the same tasks; however, the statistics reflect money earned over entire careers. The Fawcett Society cites motherhood and the glass ceiling as two reasons for the gap, which is also a symptom of the societal norms that surround femininity and parenting.

Feminist Society Coordinator Jo Boon explains: “The so called ‘wage gap’ rarely refers to a man and a woman being paid different amounts for the same job, although surprisingly this does still sometimes happen in the UK. More commonly, it refers to women earning less comparatively, whether this be because of maternity leave disrupting careers, a glass ceiling preventing access to top jobs or gendered expectations about job roles.

“For instance, caring roles are still often seen as a female option and pay less. It is important to consider that the statistics we often hear thrown around are only comparing white women to men, and disabled women or women of colour, for example, suffer more extreme wage gaps.”

Ms Boon’s words are supported by statistics. The European Commission notes that 80% of workers within the education, healthcare and public administration sectors are women. These industries, although essential, are undervalued when compared to the high-powered finance and computer industries.

Even when working in similar sectors, men and women tend to be assigned roles of varying values. The EC finds an example in grocery stores: while women frequently work as cashiers, men receive the physical (and higher paying) tasks of stacking shelves or unloading stock. Both roles are integral to the operation of the store, but the feminine role is denounced as being inherently less valuable.

Anna Atwell, president and founder of For Her Project St Andrews, believes that the root of this division lies in prejudice.

She said: “Though there are seemingly ‘logical’ reasons for the wage gap, it remains clear that discrimination is at the heart of the issue. It is often patriarchal attitudes or assumptions that deter women from going into certain fields (STEM) and influence the choices women make. Even when you account for these differences, the gap remains and is tied to the prejudice against women. The case is made especially clear when looking at the wage gap for black women who make 64 cents and Latina women who earn 56 cents for every dollar a white man makes.”

A 2015 study conducted by the Associated Press showed a curious trend. Women in their twenties out-earned men in their twenties by £1,111; meanwhile, men in their thirties out-earned women in their thirties by £8,775. These numbers are indicative of a significant factor in the wage gap: motherhood. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that women who return to work after having children make, on average, 33% less than men. Described as a “motherhood penalty,” the discrepancy is the result of the part-time hours that mothers often take.Not only does their total salary decrease, but they surrender the possibility for promotion to their full-time male colleagues.

The morality of the wage gap is a difficult concept to judge. No worker should be penalised for his or her personal life, yet there is no logic in paying part-time workers the equivalent of full-time workers. In the realm of parentage, the onus is on the couple to divide duties equally. The pay gaps between industries, on the other hand, are far more sinister. Teachers are often identified as being criminally underpaid, just as bankers make headlines for their grandiose bonuses. The wage gap will remain a prominent fixture in society until steps can be taken to equalise industries, either in salary or gender representation.

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