Is There a Wage Gap in the United States?

The question ‘is there a wage gap in the United States‘ is fiendishly complex and people far smarter than I am have spent their whole careers devoted to it, but I want to begin with a broad observation. There IS a gender pay gap among full-time workers around the world. The size of this gender pay gap varies dramatically by country.

For example, in New Zealand women working full time make on average 90 cents for every dollar that a man working full time makes. Whereas in South Korea, that number is just 62 cents. When it comes to calculating the pay gap in the United States, a lot depends on what exactly you’re calculating. Like, by hourly wage, the pay gap is about 16%. By weekly take-home pay, it’s between 18 and 19%. By annual earnings, it’s around 21%.

The fuzziness here speaks to the complexity of what we’re about to get into, but basically men on average work more hours than women on average. Actually, nope, they don’t. But men work more paid hours. This 16 to 21% number just looks at all full-time workers. It doesn’t account for differences in education, or skills, or experience, or occupation. When you factor all that stuff in, the pay gap shrinks to somewhere between 4 and 8% depending on who’s doing the math.

This is the so-called “unexplained pay gap” that is, there is no economic explanation for it and most nonpartisan analyses agree that this part of the pay gap is directly due to gender discrimination. That 4 to 8% number might sound low but even on the extremely conservative end, it would mean that women lose over 241 million dollars of pay every year to direct discrimination. I should add here that there is also a wide racial pay gap in the United States and there is overwhelming evidence that much of that gap is due to direct discrimination. Because race and gender affect people long before they enter the workforce, it’s difficult to disentangle causes here, but we do know that women of color are doubly disadvantage when it comes to pay regardless of skill level, experience, or education.

So a portion of the gender wage gap is attributable to discrimination in the United States, but most of it is ostensibly about choice. Choice of college majors, or flexibility when it comes to hours, or occupation. This is what people generally mean when they talk about debunking the gender wage gap. Women, on average, work fewer hours and tend to work in less lucrative professions from school teaching to caregiving. Whereas men are more likely to work in higher paying fields like engineering or anesthesiology. Some of the pay gap can be found here, like in one study of more 120 professions, more women than men worked in nine of the ten lowest paying jobs. But of course that isn’t only about choice, it’s also about the expectations of the social order. Like, why are there more female nurse anesthetists but more male anesthesiologists? And then there’s the fact that even within almost all of these professions, the pay gap persists from computer programmers to teachers to lawyers. Some of this is the aforementioned “unexplained pay gap” but some of it is because men, on average, work more paid hours than women, which brings us to the question of unpaid work. The average adult American woman spends 167 minutes per day on housework or care for household members. For the average adult American male, it 101 minutes per day. And that work, even though it’s unpaid, is of course very real. Now, none of this is to criticize the many women and many men who work fewer hours or don’t work in the labor force at all to focus on childcare or housework. It’s only to say that women doing a disproportionate amount of the unpaid labor in the United States inevitably distorts the paid labor market.

We see this especially clearly in studies of what happens to workers after they have kids. With each child a family has, women see their average income relative to men go down. It goes down about 7.5% after the first child. There have been a ton of studies exploring this, but I just want to highlight one. In 2007, a Stanford professor sent out fictitious resumes to various firms and found that female applicants with children were less likely to be offered positions and when offered jobs, were offered lower starting salaries. Men, meanwhile, actually seem to fare better after they have children in both employment opportunities and wages. This may also be part of the reason the pay gap gets worse over time.

It’s near 10% from young adulthood until about the age of 35, when it suddenly jumps up. Like one study looking at business school graduates found that right out of school there was a relatively small gap but then 8 years later it was much, much larger. And interestingly, even in careers dominated by women men disproportionately advance to supervisory roles Like, most librarians are women, but male librarians are disproportionately likely to become library directors. And there are still large pay gaps within careers that employ mostly women, from nursing to librarianship. In fact, unless you really cherry pick the data, a real and consistent gender pay gap exists across almost all fields at all education levels at all ages. And at the current rate of change, this wage gap won’t close in the United States until 2058.

In short, there IS a gender pay gap but it is not as simple as women making 77 or 79 cents for every dollar men make. Instead, it’s an extremely complicated web of interwoven factors. Some of the pay gap is attributable to positive, empowered choices that individual women make to work less or to work in fields they find more fulfilling. Much of it is due to direct discrimination against women, especially mothers. And much of it is also due to the way our social order constructs gender and our expectations of women. This is something we can change together by, for instance, embracing the idea that there’s no reason for the social order to saddle women with most of the world’s unpaid work. And we can also examine the real personal and systemic biases that are distorting the way that we look at women in the workplace and outside of it.

So the gender pay gap is complicated and it’s integrated with many other socioeconomic phenomena, but make no mistake – It is real.

This article, “Is There a Wage Gap in the United States?”, is a derivative of “Is the Gender Pay Gap Real?” by vlogbrothers, used under CC BY 3.0 US.
“Is There a Wage Gap in the United States?” is licensed under CC BY 3.0 US by Matthew Sayle d/b/a The Tenth Yard.
Changes Made: Video translation to American English text and modified for added readability.
Screenshot images also added under CC BY 3.0 US
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