Do women earn less in the U.S. workforce because of gender bias?


Fact Box

  • ‘Gender bias’ is defined by the Macmillan Dictionary as “unfair differences in the way a person is treated because of their gender” [1], and in legal terms, “unequal treatment in employment opportunity (such as promotion, pay, benefits and privileges), and expectations due to attitudes based on the sex of an employee or group of employees” [2].
  • The gender wage gap is calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics by dividing the average earnings of all men working full time by the average earnings of all women working full time [3]. 
  • 1979 was the first year to compile comparable earnings data between male and female workers, classifying women’s earnings as 62% of men’s. Since 2004, the women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio has remained in the 80 to 83 percent range [4].
  • The U.S. Department of Labor does not define or cap the number of hours worked for an employee to be considered “full-time.” However, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), any employee working up to 40 hours must earn minimum wage. Anything beyond that 40-hour mark is time and a half [5].

Suzanne (No)

If women earned only 0.77 of every dollar earned by men, wouldn’t employers hire exclusively women to protect their bottom line? The problem with gender wage gap statistics is that they don’t account for individual career choices made by men and women, or other relevant factors including occupation, positions held, education level, job tenure, marital status, parental leave, dangerous or physically demanding work conditions, and overall hours worked per week [1,2]. 

Surveys of college majors show that men dominate the highest-paying majors (STEM fields), while women dominate the lowest-paying majors (counseling psychology, childhood education, liberal arts) [3]. These areas of work offer vastly different compensation rates [2]. Even in the same careers, men and women make different choices that impact how much money they earn. For instance, women working in medicine gravitate to specialties that offer regular hours but are not as highly compensated as other areas. Men can earn more on average than women by working longer hours (averaging at 43.3 hours per week while women report 41 hours) [4], they often work in physically demanding and dangerous environments (construction, logging, oil rigging), and are involved with inflexible commutes that are less family-friendly. 

The gender wage gap would only be unacceptable if it meant women made less than men for doing the exact same work with the same number of hours in the same job with the same educational background, and exactly the same years of uninterrupted work experience. Calling the individual choices made by free Americans ‘labor market discrimination’, and to suggest that American women are manipulated into their life choices by forces beyond their control is degrading to their agency as educated and self-determining human beings [5,6,7].

Rida (Yes)

Completely ascribing the gender pay gap to external factors disregards the systemic sexism and racism that led to fewer opportunities for women (particularly women of color). Below are answers to some common criticisms of the gender pay gap.

Educational attainment and career choices/advancement: 

Historically, women have been denied admissions to colleges in the top paying professions leading to trickle-down segregation of “male” and “female” professions and mentors. Multiple studies have confirmed that students and workers perform better when their professors/supervisors look like them, which unfortunately is not the case for most women.

Men in the workforce are more likely to hire and mentor other men due to their confirmation biases [1,2]. Additionally, the recent MeToo movement has seen the rise of anti-women hiring sentiments [3] from male employers due to the risk of sexual harassment allegations.

Personal choice of marriage/motherhood:

Economists have proven the existence of a marriage penalty in earnings for women. Motherhood is seen as the most significant deterrent to equal pay in the marriage penalty theory [4]. Well, that’s definitely biased against women since men are half responsible for birth, but they are not held economically liable in terms of reduced earnings.

Choice of working hours: 

Critics that cite fewer working hours for working mothers are choosing to blissfully ignore the patriarchal roots of society that dictate a woman to be the primary caregiver for children [5]. In same-sex male couples, there is no such thing as a marriage penalty because of equal assumption of childcare responsibilities. 

Are women helpless puppets of society? No. But do women have a steeper slope to climb to attain the same earning as men? Absolutely.

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