What Is the “Wage Gap”, Anyway?

“For every dollar a man makes, a woman makes 77¢.” You’ve probably heard this statistic thrown around before. But what, really, does it mean? For a statistic we use to benchmark the “wage gap”, it’s a shockingly broad statement. Well, as it turns out, this statistic is legitimate, and it does demonstrate a significant problem with sexism in the modern world – but it doesn’t mean what you think it does.

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to do something big with my life. From fairly early, I was clear on what, though I wasn’t always clear on how (my idea of how to accomplish my goal at age 6 was to take over the country of Australia – how I thought this would help, I no longer remember). Over time, as I grew up, my ideas crystallized into an actual goal: I would become a successful technology startup founder.

Even so, there was always this discontent looming in my head. Being assigned female at birth, I had heard all the horror stories about the ways the patriarchy made womens’ lives hell, in and out of the workplace. And as a person who wanted in particular to make a ton of money, that “77¢ on the dollar” statistic haunted me. If only I’d been born male, I thought, I would be able to make almost 30% more money! For several months in my teens, I seriously considered making a medical transition in order to up my earning potential.

Except, no. Because that isn’t actually how it works.

According to my previous model of the world, the 77¢ thing applied across the board: a woman working any job would make 23% less than a man working the same job, always, in every industry. So a female teacher would make less than a male one, and a female software engineer would also make less than a male one.

But in actuality, the reason that women make on average 23% less than men is that women take jobs that pay on average 23% less. A female software engineer doesn’t get paid less than a male one – in fact, although women do make up a statistical minority of the programming/technology world, those who are a part of that space tend to make more than men, since women tend toward leadership roles. However, most women are not software engineers; most women are teachers, nurses, secretaries, cashiers, and retail workers. And these jobs pay much less than male-dominated jobs.

So, the source of the gender wage gap is not endemic sexism? Well, not quite. There is a reason that women on average choose jobs that pay less.

When my grandmother was young, there was a common saying in her college, that the women were only there to get their “Mrs. degree”. After she graduated, employers refused to take her on because she “was just going to get married and leave the workforce”.

When my mother was young, many of the other girls in her Catholic school made excuses for their lack of willingness to attempt difficult intellectual pursuits because they were “just girls”. (Her father never let her make these excuses, which is a decent part of what made my mother how she is.)

When I was young, I attended a series of all-girls STEM bootcamps that were designed to encourage girls to go into technical fields. I never much understood the point, because it had never occurred to me that gender had any relation at all to career choices.

Historically, women have been told that their being female limited their career options, or that certain careers were “less feminine”. Women who were told this type of thing comprise a significant portion of the women alive today. And hence, the 27% wage gap.

If you account for differences in college majors, occupations, working hours, and parental leave, the difference between women and men across the board is more like 3-6%.

But hang on, 3-6% is still significant. Where does that come from?

That small (but present) difference likely arises from a large variety of factors, including some amount of (real!) sex discrimination in the workplace. Still, my best guess on the biggest reason for the remaining gap is this:

Women are not systematically taught career skills.

I know a lot of men who were taught how to do business by their fathers, who own businesses. I can attest to the usefulness of learning business at a young age: I worked in my mom’s businesses most of my youth. It is possible to learn how to negotiate a salary, or interview effectively, or manage a team, without the ready-made mentor of a business-savvy parent, but it’s much more difficult. Most of the women in the workforce today don’t have that advantage.

Just working for a while doesn’t magically bestow upon you the skills you need to get paid what you’re worth. You aren’t going to learn how to interview well just by doing it a whole bunch – at a minimum, to understand the whole process you’ll need to come at it from both ends. And you aren’t going to learn how to be an effective manager without getting advice from someone who is.

The easiest way to learn these things is, obviously, to have a parent who will teach it to you. In absence of such, many women are left without critical career skills, and make less money as a result.

This means a number of things. First, we as a society need to stop gendering careers. That girls-only STEM program I went to should be abolished, because it should not be a novel concept to anyone that girls can be technicians (though the general concept of allowing young people to shadow technical professionals was a great thing to have; my brother should just have been allowed to attend).

Second, any individual women who are busy making excuses for their poor work ethic and poor salaries, blaming their gender, should get ahold of their bootstraps and start pulling themselves up.

Third, if any parent cannot provide their children with a satisfactory training in business, that is a critical failure, and they should do their best to outsource that training which they cannot provide themselves (ie, they should send their children to a program which can provide such training).

And fourth, most obviously, sexism in general should be eradicated.

Lastly, we all need accurate information on what the wage gaps endemic to our workplaces are, and what causes them. If we have an inaccurate picture of the reason for such statistics as “for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes 77¢”, we are doomed to waste our efforts on ineffective solutions. And given how bloody slowly change happens in modern politics, inefficiency is not an available option.

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