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“Women, Like Men, Only Cheaper”: Why Closing The Wage Gap Won’t Be Easy

While feminists have been raging to end the existing pay gap, which is exclusively gender-biased, patriarchy-sympathizers, analysts and a few other people have been lobbying in support of the notion that gender gap is a myth, further weakening the efforts of the few to achieve equal pay for equal work. The debate between the two is never-ending.

Suggested read: 14 Instances Of Everyday Sexism All Women Face On A Daily Basis

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, once said in an interview to Forbes magazine,

We have to understand that the pay gap is happening to women and men with similar jobs that require similar skills and similar educational levels—and that has a real impact.

She is also the founder of the 20 Percent Counts Campaign, which gives women an additional 20% discount in certain stores and services across 300 cities on Equal Pay Day, which is celebrated on the 4thof April. However, skeptics of the wage gap phenomenon are under the impression that this is a feminist saga, which has been propagated on unfounded facts as a pretense to get ahead in the professional world. As I said, the debate is unrelenting.

Irrespective of what supporters of either perspective would like to believe, it is undoubtedly true that in most of the cases, women do get paid considerably less than men. What we are going to talk about today is the reasons why this happens again and again, and whether it is merely a by-product of sexism and patriarchy or is there a more deep-rooted cause behind it.

Is Wage Gap Actually A Thing?

The focus here lies on the words “equal work” rather than “equal pay” because in order to demand the latter, people have to be evaluated on the basis of their work, skill, performance, and effort. However, to be honest, there isn’t a universal standard of judgment for work which is done, which in turn, can lead to discrepancies in payment.

For example, according to a survey conducted by World at Work,

A company pays its truck drivers more than its secretaries. There is no equal identity of their skill, effort, responsibility or working conditions — the requirement for equal pay under the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The jobs involve different factors and features and thus, either cannot be compared or are compared by a job-evaluation plan that perpetuates historical female pay discrimination. Current U.S. law allows a small difference in job content to justify massive pay differences. The employer justifies its pay by claiming it relies on the competitive market. But despite a large surplus of drivers seeking work and a shortage of secretaries, the company holds the mostly male driver rate higher than necessary while refusing to raise secretarial pay. It instead seeks to eliminate the need for the scarce-skilled female job functions. It becomes easy for comparable worth advocates to suspect that a double standard is operating.

What people fail to realize is that the skill and effort which is required to be a secretary is far less than that required to be a truck driver, which allows scope for compensation, rewards, and raises for the latter, while the professional stasis of the former is passed off as an act of sexism in the workplace.

Wage Gap in Hollywood and Bollywood 

The issue of the wage gap is also a problem on the big screen in industries like Hollywood, where women like Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep have spoken about the existing wage gap, time and again. In the 2015 edition of the 100 top-paid actors released by Forbes, only two women made the cut – Scarlett Johansson who made $35.5 million and Jennifer Lawrence, who made $52 million, while Robert Downey Jr. took home $80 million. However, you also have to consider the role of women in Hollywood movies. Just like most of the other minority groups like the black, LGBT, and Latino community, women, at large, are also underrepresented in Hollywood movies, even though they make up 50% of the population. However, the role of women as central protagonists of the narrative can generate lesser profits in the box office, wherein lies the sexism, and not in the wages given.

Closer to home, a recent debate about the wage gap has been sparked off by the news that Deepika Padukone is being paid INR 13 Cr for her role as lead in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati, while her male co-stars, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor,are getting a sum close to INR 10 Cr each. This example is not merely to be lauded for a novelty in a largely sexist industry such as Bollywood, but also poses a solution to a crisis which has been fuming for a really long time now. The payment of women, according to their contribution, in comparison with their male counterparts, or any counterparts in general, is the way the remuneration system should be working.

Wage gap is an eye-opening phenomenon which highlights the fact that the sexism and patriarchy is a much more deep-rooted force in the work culture, and not merely when it comes to payment for services. The fact that women are considered incapable of doing as much work as men is the real issue that has to be broached, instead of campaigning for the inadequate payment they receive. The fact remains, that there isn’t equal work in the first place, which renders the idea of equal pay and all vocal struggle around it, redundant. Now let’s look at why there is less work.

Are women less ambitious?

Last week, my uncle and his family had come over for dinner, and you know how the three rounds of drinks before the food is served actually become this center of heated discussions on everything that is happening around the globe? We’ve never counted, but every family dinner, we have solved so many global problems in that dimly-lit sitting room of ours! Anyway, last week, wage gap made its way into our conversation, and my uncle, with no hesitation, considering there were three women in the room, said, “Women have lower salaries because they can’t negotiate their pays well. Also, they aren’t naturally competitive. They have no ambition. They are happy with the simple things in life.”  Well, I wanted to scream at him like a Death Eater, but there is a larger issue to address here, and to address his allegations well, we need to find out if there is any truth in them.

According to studies, women do negotiate salaries lesser than men, but people just assume it is due to lack of drive. A series of experiments were conducted to find the real reason, and what surfaced was the fact that managers are less interested to work with women who demand higher salaries during job negotiations. Again, it is equal work that is missing, without which equal pay can never come about.

However, the story doesn’t end there. It does not explain why then the gap is higher for women with children than women without children. Another study conducted in 2015, shows that unmarried women earn 96 cents for every dollar a man earns. Wage gap is a very complex issue, and to understand it better, the best way is to trace the career trajectories of people starting their career at the same time, with the same skill sets. Well before we thought of this, three economists, in 2009, did the job for us. They studied a quarter of the students who graduated with an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business between the years 1990 and 2006. For the study, the researchers interviewed them and asked questions regarding the jobs they had gotten into after graduating from the University; the number of hours they worked; the country/city/area they worked in; the department they worked for; and how much they earned each year.

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After receiving the details from the people under study, the researchers began analyzing how gender had influenced the roadmap of their careers from business school to where they were today.

“We decided to focus on MBAs, because if you think about women’s access to the top echelons, the corporate sector is one where they have had a particularly difficult time,” says Marianne Bertrand, an economist at the University of Chicago, who led the study.

The study found that the first year after graduating, the men had slightly higher salaries than women. On an average, women right out of grad school received a salary of $115,000, while their male counterparts received $130,000. You might link this to the fact that the men in the study put in few more weekly hours and also had some prior experience when they began working full time. Considering those factors, the pay gap is not that ridiculous.

However, things started getting worse for women, nine years into the workforce. The difference in salaries between men and women almost doubled.

While women’s salaries saw a rise of $250,000, on an average, the men’s salaries stood at a mighty $400,000. After 9 years, men were earning 60 per cent more than the women folk.

Now, this statistic does explain there is a gender-based wage gap, but it does not look at why in some professions the wage gap is bigger than in others, and some where equal pay for equal work remains a distant dream.

Bertrand says,

There are really three groups: men, women with children, and women without children. Things like negotiating skill might matter on the margin, but it is not the core issue.

If, like my uncle had suggested, women weren’t as competitive as men, why then was the wage gap the least when women were younger. Do you think women lost their negotiating skills as they aged? Not very likely, is it? But let’s say women get married and they have babies; does that have a bearing on how they negotiate their salaries? With added responsibilities on the home front, do they realize they won’t be able to shoulder the duties that will be delegated to them once they demand a higher raise? If there is any truth in whatever I am saying, may be the solution to wage gap lies at home. Let me explain how.

Home and the Wage Gap

Though you see the evidence of wage gap in the paycheck, it isn’t there that the problem originates. The highest paying jobs go to people who can work the longest hours, and mostly the least flexible hours. Now, how would an employee with caregiving responsibilities sign up for such a job? They wouldn’t, right? And who are these employees who get penalized by such a system in place? Mostly women. Now, to solve this, men and women need to equally divide caregiving responsibilities at home. This will automatically take away a lot from a woman’s plate, and she too can put her name down for jobs that are demanding.

While this sounds like an easy change, we need to realize that this will take years to become an actual reality. So does that mean women have to wait years for equal pay for equal work since the wage gap completely depends on whether or not men share caregiving responsibilities? And what about women who are single parents? Well, there is another solution. To understand that, let’s look at how pharmacies got gender-sensitized and the wage gap reduced to only 8 per cent.

In 1970s, women pharmacists only earned 66 per cent of what men did, but today, they earn 92 per cent of their male counterparts. Compared to the wage gap in other professions like doctor or lawyer, what we see in pharmacies is marginal. So how did the gap shrink?

The shrink, according to research conducted by Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University, has occurred because the profession has changed. While pharmacies in the 1970s were primarily independent or self-owned, today most of them are owned by large chains. In the 70s, a single pharmacist had to take care of the shop all by himself/herself. As a result, he or she had to be prepared to stay open at typical business hours. Today, bigger pharmacies hire more pharmacists, who work on a rotational basis, and this has worked in favor for the women who don’t have to say yes to a particular work hour; they can go for the one that works for them.

According to Goldin, making work hours accommodating and workers substitutable, will automatically make work easier for people with caregiving responsibilities, men or women.

Though this has worked for pharmacies, how will it work for positions that are 24/7? How can the same be applied to the jobs of CEOs, or trial lawyers, surgeons or the executive head of a country? No, it cannot be applied to these positions. But the list of positions where these changes can be incorporated is considerable. For the rest, policies need to be developed by governments to make work hours equally valuable. Goldin says that the government policies usually focus only on inflexible workplaces and not on the inflexibility of working hours, and there lies the actual problem.

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To have equally valuable hours, Goldin suggests in her research, one might have to move away from the conventional work schedules, such as 9-5 work hours, because though traditionally workers had a spouse to look after the household during these hours while he was at work, the situation today isn’t the same.

There is also a need to stop giving rewards disproportionately to those who agree to work long hours, because many studies suggest that long hours do not always convert into productive hours. According to a study, managers find it difficult to distinguish between employees who work 80 hours a week and those who only pretend to have worked during those hours.

To close the wage gap, policies need to focus on how to fine-tune jobs to make them work differently. Yes, there will always be some jobs where doing this won’t be possible and adding some alterations to make a job flexible will not help get rid of the wage gap in a day, but it is definitely going to be an improvement since there are numerous sectors and jobs where this change can be applied.

But as America Ferrera put it in an email to supporters of the Clinton Foundation in March 2015,

“But the truth is, we still have so much more to do. Take the fact that women around the world still don’t have equal pay, or that nine countries around the world don’t provide for paid maternity leave. When you look at the facts, you have to ask yourself: Where do we really stand when it comes to gender equality? The answer is: We’re just not there yet.” 

Featured image source: Instagram

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