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Why Does a Gender Pay Gap Exist?

San Diego Magazine Editor in Chief (and mom) Erin Meanley Glenny talks with UC San Diego economics professor (and mom) Kate Antonovics to break down the crucial question


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Erin Meanley Glenny: So… it’s 2018. How did we get here?

Kate Antonovics: In the 1980s, women were earning something more like 62 cents for every dollar that a man was earning. In 2010, that number was closer to 80 cents. So the gender pay gap has been shrinking. It used to be the case that a large part of it could be accounted for by differences in schooling and years of experience. Now young women are more likely to have a college degree than young men. What matters is the difference in industries and occupations men and women are choosing. For example, if you look at the gender pay gap within an occupation, women earn close to 92 cents for every dollar a man earns. This is where the debate gets really, really heated. Very conservative people say, “The reason women earn less is they choose to go into lower-paying occupations and industries. They would rather be teachers. They don’t want the high-stress Wall Street work environments.” There are also societal and other factors that may account for that. If Wall Street is the “old boys’ network,” then maybe they think it’s going to be a very unwelcoming environment. The other side of the debate says, “No, men and women have the exact same preferences and they face different constraints. The whole reason they’re earning less is because companies and society are discriminating.” The truth may be somewhere in between.

It’s also the case that women are often choosing to work fewer hours than men are. A number of studies strongly suggest that the gender pay gap really opens up when women have children.

 

EMG: If we’re closer to 92 cents on the dollar, then is the pay gap overstated? Are there other places where we need to put our attention?

KA: This is not about women not being smart, motivated, or hard working. Their educational attainment is now higher than men, and yet their success in the workplace is lower. That’s a mystery. We as a society ought to be interested in understanding what’s going on.

There’s a fascinating study at Harvard Business School that looked at the differences in how single and married women state their ambitions, and how that varied depending on whether it was public or private. The women who were married expressed equal levels of ambition regardless of whether or not they thought their classmates were going to observe their statements. Single women responded really differently—they expressed much less ambition when they thought their classmates were going to be able to see the results of the survey. Women who are single feel they can’t express their levels of ambition because it might hurt their chances on the marriage market. That’s the interpretation, and it’s an example of how men and women face very different constraints. The men, by the way—their levels of ambition were constant.

Whatever is going on, it’s pretty complicated. I don’t think we fully understand it yet.

 

EMG: In so many of the interviews I’ve done for this piece, it seems there is one point in women’s lives where they get really tripped up because they are either pregnant or they’ve stopped working altogether. The Gallup report Women in America says, “Kids are a company’s greatest competition.” But when women want to return to working, they can’t get back into their industry. I don’t see a solution.

KA: You’ve hit the nail on the head. I believe a very large part of the gender pay gap is related to children and what’s happening in the household. There’s considerable evidence that women do far more housework than men do. As a working woman with kids, I see it all the time. The advice I give my female graduate students is, have really frank discussions with your partner about what’s going to happen when kids arrive. If you want to work, that really needs to be part of the conversation. You need a partner who’s going to say, “Okay, I will take half those doctor appointments and half those dentist appointments. I will share in this.”

I ask myself, “What would a man do?” all the time. Would a man worry about getting a Christmas present for his kid’s kindergarten teacher? And the answer is no, he would never do that, and so I don’t have to do that. Don’t hold yourself to higher expectations than men would hold themselves. Otherwise, we make ourselves miserable. The research does support that.

I think if you want to work, you either have to live near family or be able to make enough money to afford help. Otherwise, you’ll hit a wall. You can’t have kids and work and not be earning a lot of money and not have any support.

 

EMG: What do women and men need to do to change the home dynamic?

KA: Have men change their expectations about what they’re going to be doing around the house. For women to achieve equity, men have to change, too. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be on the women to keep pushing forward.

 

EMG: Do you ever look at the economics of maternity leave?

KA: Yeah. There’s the school of thought that paid maternity leave doesn’t always help women. It may make it more costly for employers to hire women, and so it may decrease their chances of being hired. Within academia, a lot of faculty members, men or women, are eligible for parental leave. A lot of people think that when male faculty members get it they use it to write papers and publish more. You have this policy that seems like it’s going to be really equitable. In fact, because of gender dynamics in the household, it doesn’t end up operating that way. A really interesting paper suggested that when women have kids, their hours fall and their pay never recovers. This idea that you can have it all is not really pouring out in the data.

 

EMG: A recent issue of Glamour said women make less, save less, and live longer. That’s pretty bleak. Where are the areas of hope?

KA: Well, we are making progress. Women’s labor force participation, especially of married women, has gone way up over time. The pay gap has gone down. Women’s college graduation rates have gone way up. People are more aware of the issues. I don’t feel pessimistic about it at all; I just think that there’s a fight to be fought. But I don’t think it’s a hopeless fight.

Another interesting thing. As a man, if your mother worked, then your wife is more likely to work. Society does come into play. My daughter once asked me why I don’t volunteer at school as much as some of the other mommies. It’s like, wow, I’m getting it from my daughter! I didn’t blame her for it. It was remarkable to me that these pressures come in from all angles.

 

EMG: And from the daycare lady who said, “What time are you coming to help blow out candles for your son’s birthday?” and I said, “Is this what the other moms are doing?”

KA: What would a man do? You always gotta keep that mantra.

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