Partisans on both the left and right frequently make inaccurate claims about the gender pay gap. Faced with this onslaught of contradictory messages, many Americans are left with a poor understanding of the issue.
At the Connors Forum for a Healthy Democracy we are committed to disseminating high-quality nonpartisan information to the American public around issues of societal importance. So what does the research actually say?
How is the gender pay gap defined?
The gender pay gap is typically defined as the difference in wages between full-time male and female workers in the U.S.
It is often presented as a ratio. Stated this way, we would say that the gender pay gap in the U.S. today is around 83%. This means that when you look at the average full-time female worker in the U.S., she earns about 83% of what the average full-time male worker is earning.
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How big is the gap in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania is below average at 79%, which is 32nd among U.S. states. The top five performing states are Vermont (91%), Hawaii (89%), Maryland (89%), California (88%) and Nevada (87%), while the bottom five are Alabama (74%), Oklahoma (73%), Louisiana (72%), Utah (70%) and Wyoming (65%).
What causes the gender pay gap?
One of the most widely-cited studies of the causes of the gender pay gap comes from Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn.
Their quantitative analysis reveals that gender differences in occupation and industry together account for about half of the gap. When other variables such as gender differences in labor force experience are included, a little over 60% of the gap can be accounted for.
This still leaves 38% of the gender pay gap unexplained. What might account for the remaining gap? There are a variety of studies from other scholars that provide important insights. There is evidence from experiments, for instance, which shows that men are more competitively inclined, more likely to negotiate and less risk-averse on average when compared to women.
Other survey-based studies have suggested that some combination of gender differences in agreeableness, self-confidence, extroversion and the importance placed on money/work/family may contribute to the unexplained gap. There is also experimental evidence that gender discrimination may still play an important role.
What myths do partisans perpetuate?
There are a variety of myths that those on both the left and right perpetuate in the public discourse. On the left, one of the most common that I hear is, “Women are being paid 83% of what men are being paid for the same work.” As our earlier definition makes clear, this is not what the gender pay gap indicates. It measures what average full-time male and female workers earn, but it says nothing of whether they are doing the same types of work.
One of the most common things I hear from those on the right is, “Once you take into account individual differences between workers, there is no gap at all.” What accounts for the unexplained portion of the pay gap is actually quite contested territory. Some of the factors may indeed be about the characteristics of individual workers—their level of competitiveness, for instance—while some factors may be outside of the control of individuals, such as discrimination.
Furthermore, some differences that seem to be the result of individual choices may be at least partially impacted by forces outside of one’s control. While we all make choices, men and women don’t always have the same choices available to them.
Can the gap be reduced further?
Research suggests that there are ways to further reduce the gender pay gap. One method would be through better family policies. In the words of Francine Blau, improving such policies would “make it as easy as we possibly can for American workers to combine work and family.” Such policies could include things like subsidized childcare and federally-guaranteed paid parental leave.
In the U.S., it is difficult for many families to find high-quality childcare that is affordable. And on paid leave, the U.S. stands out compared to other wealthy countries in not providing federally-guaranteed paid parental leave.
Research shows that, before couples have their first child, the gender pay gap is much smaller. Once the first child arrives, women are often forced to “take their foot off the pedal” more in their careers compared to men, which contributes to reduced earnings over time.
Policies that help ease the work-family balance are among a number of options available to us if we choose to continue to reduce the gender pay gap in the U.S.
Lawrence M. Eppard is a researcher, Shippensburg University faculty member, and director of the Connors Forum for a Healthy Democracy. He is also the co-host of the Utterly Moderate Podcast, which is distributed by The Sentinel and other Lee Enterprises newspapers.