Why Do Women Earn Less Than Men?

by Miranda Marquit · 14 comments

By now, it’s pretty well established that women generally earn less than men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women working full-time earn 77% of what men working full-time do (median earnings).

However, that’s a simplification that only reflects the bigger picture. According to “The Gender Pay Gap,” a study published by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, the pay gap is much more complex. Women do earn less than men overall, but the “real” gap for women doing the same work as men is about 91 cents on each dollar earned by men.

While it’s a much smaller pay gap than what’s generally shown, it still represents a degree of inequality in women’s versus men’s pay.

But why does it exist? There’s no single answer.

Factors Influencing Women’s Pay

It would be nice to be able to point to one cause and say, “This is the reason. Fix it.” But there are many complex factors at play, some of them related to lifestyle choices.

Here are some that could be to blame:

  • Starting salary: Men are more inclined to negotiate a higher starting salary. There are some indications that women might leave as much as $500,000 on the table over their lifetimes, just because they didn’t start out asking for a salary that a man would ask for. Since starting salary provides the basis for promotions and raises down the road, it’s virtually impossible to “catch up” once you fall behind.
  • Unions: According to the paper, men are more likely to have their salaries protected by unions. They’re also more likely to be members of these unions, which can account for as much as 4% of the pay gap.
  • Career choice: The biggest factor, though, is career choice. While there’s no rule that says men can’t be elementary school teachers and women can’t be engineers, the reality is that these careers are still heavily gendered. An elementary school teacher is lucky to end her career with the salary that an engineer can command early in his career.

Another consideration is lifestyle choices. While there are more stay-at-home dads now than ever before, women are still far more likely to be caregivers. This often means spending years out of the workforce and giving up earning power.

In the end, it may not matter to you if you make less if you can do a job that you like and that allows you the flexibility to live the life you want.

Yes, there’s still discrimination. And yes, there’s still inequality when it comes to men and women getting paid for the same work. But the gap isn’t as wide as you might think, and the causes aren’t so easily fixed.

successful woman

How Do You Close the Financial Gap as a Woman?

On the other hand, you absolutely should do something about it if you care about closing that financial gap. After all, this isn’t just about a wage gap. It’s more about the traditional attitudes in society and the roles women play that are more likely to result in a financial security gap in the future. Here is what Bloomberg Business reports about how many women end up in a precarious position in their retirement years:

“Lower Social Security benefits, longer life expectancy, and lower retirement savings balances because of lower-paying jobs all compound into this incredibly large shortfall,” said Gregory Ward, a senior financial planner with Financial Finesse.

Yikes!

If you are a woman, it’s important to consider your financial future and do what you can to avoid running into problems in your later years.

Why is There a Large Retirement Gap?

One of the biggest reasons for a large retirement gap between men and women is the fact that women’s careers often take a very different trajectory than men’s. Here are some of the ways that women traditionally miss out on the earnings that could lead to a more secure financial future:

  • Women are more likely to put their careers on hold to be caregivers, whether they are taking of their children or aging parents or in-laws. This means missing out on years of earnings, as well as promotions and raises that come with a straighter career path.
  • Women are more likely to work part-time in order to be more flexible as caregivers, which means they not only work less, but are also more likely to be working lower-paying jobs.
  • When women do work full-time, they are more likely to choose lower-paying careers that come with more flexibility, and that are traditionally seen as female-oriented.
  • Women are less likely to negotiate for higher pay, leaving them at a disadvantage when it comes to lifetime earnings.

This gap is one of the reasons that the Federal Reserve reports that 87% of the impoverished elderly are women. After all, women tend to live longer and have less money to support them in their old age.

Closing the Financial Gap

Once you realize that you could be at greater risk for financial problems in the future, it makes sense to take steps to close that gap.

Investing is one of the best things you can do to close that gap, but you might not have the money to do so if you aren’t working. If you are married and stay home while your partner works, it’s possible for your spouse to make a contribution to an IRA on your behalf. Consider this arrangement.

You can also look for ways to earn extra money. Start a side gig, or start a home-based business while you stay home. Practice negotiating skills so that you feel more comfortable asking for a higher salary when it’s appropriate.

Also, if you have a partner, pay attention to his or her retirement arrangement. Not all annuities pass on to a partner’s spouse. Figure out the best method of protecting yourself in the event your partner dies first during retirement so that you don’t lose a chunk of income.

It’s important to recognize that you might be at a disadvantage and to work to close that gap as early as you can.

Does the wage gap bother you? How would you fix it?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Marcia says:

    “In the end, it may not matter to you if you make less — if you can do a job that you like and that allows you the flexibility to live the life you want.”

    Uhhh…but I should at least get paid the same as a man with the same job and flexibility.

    I realize that I am underpaid. I have two small children and walk out the door at 4 pm every day. I figure that along with the $30k increase comes with the expectation to work 50 hours. And I simply cannot do that right now.

    So I’d come to terms with the salary differential UNTIL I was told how much one of our newer (male) engineers makes. Oh, he’s my age, same amount of experience, but much less experience in our particular industry. (When it comes right down to it, if our company had to shrink down to 20 people, I’d still be here. He’d be gone before we dropped down to 80.) And he makes 40% more than I do.

    It’s frankly a slap in the face – do you REALLY think he’s worth that much more than me?? (The answer is NO, but they can get away with it.)

  • Ted C says:

    Well this site’s credibility just went out the window. The so called “gender pay gap” has been debunked over and over. To continue to write about it is almost comical.

    • David@MoneyNing.com says:

      Miranda is pointing out in the article that the gender pay gap is more complex than just saying that women are paid less than men. Are there any specifics in the article that you think should be corrected? It would be helpful to add to your comment instead of blindly attacking the author just because you made assumptions after you read the headline.

  • Cat says:

    But we are absolutely failing to look at the reason why women do not ask for as much as men and the reason why women end up as teachers more often than as engineers. A huge part of it is because of a cultural bias against women being as capable as men, especially in science and math related fields. Women are taught from grade school, even unintentionally, that they are not as talented as men and their value is lesser when it comes to employment. They are encouraged to focus on liberal arts and soft sciences instead of science and math. Additionally, young girls are often given dolls, whereas boys are given trucks – the lesson being taught is that a girl’s primary goal is to have babies and a family to care for, whereas a boy’s goal is to have a profession. These early differences have huge results later in life.

    It’s incredibly naive to think that there has been no effect from women only truly joining the workforce in the last 60-80 years, and even then, until recently women were often secretaries, nurses, etc. and not CEOs and doctors. Do you think that’s because they chose to pursue those career paths, or that those were their only options?

    Also, women in male dominated fields often experience resentment from men in their profession – engineers, firefighters, etc. who are women are regularly passed over for promotions and raises.
    ” a psychology experiment published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, senior science faculty across the U.S. were presented with identical résumés for a lab-manager job (a position that can often lead to graduate study) that differed only in the gender of the hypothetical applicant. The résumé raters were statistically more likely to rate the male candidate higher on competence and hirability and were also more likely to offer the male candidate a bigger salary and greater professional mentorship. By contrast, the hypothetical female applicants were rated more likable but less hirable. Female scientists were just as likely to favor male candidates as potential hires as male scientists were.

    a psychology experiment published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, senior science faculty across the U.S. were presented with identical résumés for a lab-manager job (a position that can often lead to graduate study) that differed only in the gender of the hypothetical applicant. The résumé raters were statistically more likely to rate the male candidate higher on competence and hirability and were also more likely to offer the male candidate a bigger salary and greater professional mentorship. By contrast, the hypothetical female applicants were rated more likable but less hirable. Female scientists were just as likely to favor male candidates as potential hires as male scientists were.

    • Marcia says:

      Frustrating isn’t it? I read a very interesting article a decade ago that looked at senior faculty at MIT. It showed that women were MUCH more likely to have smaller facilities and smaller budgets. One of my coworkers at the time said “well, it’s because the men are better.”

      No, you miss the point. In order for a woman to make it to faculty at MIT, she has to be THE BEST. And still treated differently.

      I personally have a tendency (as a hiring manager in a high tech company) to rate women’s resumes more highly. I find that women who are engineers are generally really into engineering. For men in engineering, there’s a range of “really into it” to “just majored in it because someone told me to”. And on the job, the women tend to work better in teams/ be more collaborative.

      Which may be why we make less money. We don’t toot our own horns enough?

  • Janet says:

    At my job there are 8 employees at my level, 5 women and 3 men, all have between 12-18 yrs experience and the men are paid the least. Not an issue, just something people like to complain about

  • Phil says:

    Ironically, this article mentions my and my brother’s profession. I am a teacher, and he is an engineer. His wife doesn’t work (nurse by training), and my wife makes more than me 😉

    But I will call my brother in the summer and tell him I haven’t worked for 30 days and I have another 32 days off. He laughs and reminds me his wife hasn’t worked in 8 years, and will have the rest of her life off (that is a joke…she is raising kids).

    In all seriousness though, something that is lost is the argument that women are more likely to take time off to raise kids, gaining less experience through those years. One cannot expect to come back after so much time off and start to earn as much as their co-workers who did not take that time off. It is a choice.

    Articles like this bothers me because it does not reflect the choices families make. Also, Oprah is a billionaire, and I am not (joke).

    • Marcia says:

      That’s not totally true. A lot of these studies correct for job title, years of experience, and education.

      Years of experience…time off to have children would factor into that.

      In one of your later posts (assuming it’s the same Phil), you mention changing jobs. That, for sure, is the way to get more money. And I counsel all my young engineers about this (male and female). I have never worked for a company that was able, or willing, to provide large enough raises to keep the people they have at the “level” they should be making.

      So they end up with a 2-tiered system. The “old timers” who are getting screwed, and the newer people who have jumped around – the company is “forced” to pay them market rate to get their expertise.

  • Phil says:

    I would still argue the answer does not lie with the employers, and we should not try to legislate to make this an “even” issue.

    If you are worth more, you can always ask for more money. If it is refused, you can go somewhere else where they will pay you what you are worth. In other words, it is still a free market.

    I have women whom I work with who make much more than me. In fact, our principal is a woman. And she is definitely deserving of the much higher pay.

    I would be very careful if you feel like you are being discriminated against. It probably is not the case, and it can lead to unhappiness.

  • Rebecca says:

    Yes, the wage gap absolutely bothers me! Thinking about the unjustified wage gap was what propelled me in my latest salary negotiations. They wanted to pay me the same as my male colleague, who has significantly less experience than I do. As I took a deep breath and gave a counter-offer, I thought of your very first point — that women don’t negotiate salary as much as men do.

  • Abigail says:

    I remember an article in the last few years that said that more men were out of work than women in the economy. One of the main factors? That it’s usually cheaper to have a female employee because of the wage gap.

    As the comment above points out and as you touched on in your post, one issue is that women who stay home miss out on raising their experience levels. It makes re-entry into the workplace harder and so a lower salary is more likely. But it’s even more than that. One reason people suggest is that companies pay women less because there’s the *chance* that they’ll leave the workforce to raise kids or that maternity leave will have to be paid.

    The gap doesn’t affect me because I have an extremely generous boss who pays me more than I’m worth. (I refrain from telling him that, of course.) Even if my husband weren’t on disability, I would still bring in more than him. But its existence bothers me greatly for the rest of the women out there. Even 9% is still too big a gap.

  • Property Marbella says:

    Unfortunately, it is women who bear children and not men. Companies know that women will be away for a long period, and are not investing in in-house training on women, but on men. This creates differences that show up in salaries.

    • Cat says:

      Right, but not all women decide to have children and not all women take long leaves when they do. To assume so and to change their jobs and salaries based on that is gender discrimination, pure and simple.

      • Liz says:

        In my experience, Cat is correct. Although my child-rearing days are over, I experienced this earlier in my career. Many of my nieces are going thru it now. IMO, it is wrong for companies to assume that a woman of child-bearing age will leave the workforce to stay at home and raise children and therefore pay her less from the get-go. And many women I know may take the standard maternity leave (12 weeks?) but will work from home or stay up to speed during that time with the exception of the first couple of weeks of that leave. Men are just as apt to take some family leave to help with the new family addition, yet companies do not pay a man of child-rearing age less than a woman. To pay less on an assumption is gender discrimination, particularly when the total effective amount of white collar male and female parental leave is essentially the same.

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