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Is the Gender Wage Gap Really All Just a Myth?

By Catherine Cai Posted: 04/11/2011
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Yoo-Jin Jung | Staff
The gender wage gap has always seemed severe, and the statistics are frustrating. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics records that on average, a woman earns about 76 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The gap often remains even after controlling for factors like education. An article in Newsweek noted that nearly half of all business majors are women, yet a woman graduating with a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) still earns about $4,600 less than her male counterpart in her first year out of school.

Feminist and women’s rights groups have continually pointed to these figures as evidence of gender discrimination in the workplace, but the reality is that these statistics are often misrepresenting the situation. The numbers simply give a coarse overview of all women compared to all men, but in truth, income disparities vary greatly across different demographic groups and are tightly linked to other factors such as age, marital status and parenthood.

A 2002 article from the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) notes that for childless individuals between the ages of 27 and 33, women’s earnings are nearly 98 percent that of men’s. In addition, there has been continual progress in recent decades. According to a report from the NCPA, the median earnings for a female college graduate jumped 30 percentage points between 1979 and 2000, a rate of growth nearly twice that for male graduates.

The NCPA article explores other possible reasons for the overall discrepancy. Women prefer jobs which allow for more flexibility, presumably so that they can take time off to care for children and attend to other household and family obligations.

More women work part-time and have fragmented work experiences, entering and exiting the workforce to take time off to care for children. According to the article, this “time out” puts women at a disadvantage to men who have had more continuous work experience.

However, the article closes with a fairly dismissive statement, concluding easily that “those who still cite women’s 76 cents for every male dollar as evidence of sexism fail to take into account the underlying role of personal choice.”

While blatant, overt sexism may be rare in the workplace, the issue of gender still undeniably plays a role in shaping these personal choices, which ultimately hinder employment and wage progress.

Despite great strides toward equality, child care is still seemingly considered a largely “female” responsibility. In every single country examined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women spent significantly more time performing unpaid work in the form of child care and household chores. Even working mothers still spent more time caring for children than nonworking fathers. Compared to mothers, fathers also spent more time involved in recreational care, such as reading to children, rather than in physical supervision or discipline.

Many will argue that biological differences shape these inequalities, that childcare is an innately feminine tendency. But there is still contention surrounding this conventional wisdom. University of Cambridge Professor Simon Baron-Cohen supports the claims, arguing in the first page of his book The Essential Difference that “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy.” Psychologist Cordelia Fine disagrees, noting that while sex differences are present, the brain’s high degree of plasticity means that neural circuits are primarily shaped by environments and interactions rather than inherent differences.

Regardless of the true reasons why more women make certain career choices, the reality remains that most aspects of our lives are shaped by gender to some extent. In this case, the wage gap and employment disparities will linger as long as the burden of unpaid work falls upon women and as long as household responsibilities and child care are considered "feminine” tasks. Many will choose to brush this off as the natural course of events, but it is worth questioning how much behavior that is considered natural is in truth shaped by years of gender learning.

Managing Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.

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