Today is annual Equal Pay Day, and I wish there were something to celebrate. But, this is the day on which we must acknowledge, once again, how deeply the gender-based wage gap hurts women and families. 

Budgets are much in mind these days, so anyone who still doesn’t care that women are paid less than men should chew on this fact: the McKinsey Global Institute just reported that eliminating this form of gender discrimination would grow the U.S. economy by $2.1 trillion in GDP in just 10 years.

And yet, we consistently hear that the wage gap is a figment of the feminist imagination. So, let’s celebrate Equal Pay Day by debunking some prevalent, and damaging, myths.

Myth #1: Women earn less because they self-segregate in low-paying jobs. 

A new study from Cornell University estimates that career choice accounts for about half of the pay gap. Setting aside the injustice of the fact that teaching, social work, childcare and other traditionally “female” occupations pay relatively low wages, given the importance and demands of those jobs, let’s look at the real impact of job segregation on wages.

Pay inequity exists across every job field and career stratum. As David Cay Johnson wrote in The National Memo, citing a report from the data-tracking firm Guidestar USA, “While women who become waitresses or retail clerks should expect to make less than lawyers and executives, there is no reason that women executives and lawyers should make less than men doing the same jobs — but they do.”

In fact, according to a 2014 study PCSW commissioned from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), female surgeons and financial managers in Connecticut experience the largest wage gap – earning just over half (56%) what their male colleagues make.  And so, yes, while a woman who becomes a financial manager makes more money than a woman – or a man – who goes into teaching, she still suffers enormous wage inequity when comparing apples to apples.

Myth #2: Women earn less because they take time off to become mothers.

Again, this accounts for some of the discrepancy. But the real question is: are we being punished for our biology? While more than 95 percent of Connecticut men with children younger than six continue to work, that figure drops precipitously for women: just 73.6 percent continue to work outside the home.

Many economists acknowledge the phenomenon known as the “mommy penalty” – another factor that unfairly widens the wage gap. University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist Michelle Budig, who studies the wage gap, reports that working women who become mothers see a 4 percent drop in their wages for each child they have. To add insult to injury, when a working man becomes a father, in addition to the bump in his wife’s belly, there is a 6 percent bump in his pay; the “logic” here is that when women have children, their work suffers, whereas when men become fathers, they “settle down” and become more responsible.

And because women tend to make less to begin with, their incomes are usually seen as expendable when families are weighing the cost of childcare vs. having the mother stay home with the kids.

It stands to reason that when a person – regardless of gender – must leave the labor force to care for a child, he or she will lose wages. But it does not answer the question of why women continue to suffer from this phenomenon more than men do. The problem could be greatly alleviated if Connecticut were to pass meaningful Paid Family and Medical Leave legislation, as New York has just done, to allow for maternity or paternity leave, and hence preserving the worker’s job earnings and status.

Myth #3: Women earn less because they are less educated.

Preposterous on the face of it. Women outnumber men in colleges, graduate at greater rates, and have higher G.P.A.s. And yet, our IWPR study shows that Connecticut women with some college education or an associate’s degree still tend to earn less than a man with only a high school diploma.

And while the numbers of women in STEM careers are creeping upward, entering a high-paying field that demands more education does not bridge the wage gap. In fact, as Claire Cain Miller reported in The New York Times recently, as women enter male-dominated fields in large numbers, the pay for those jobs begins to drop. She cites several recent studies, which show that when women begin to populate a career field that was previously the domain of men, employers begin to devalue it.

For example: in the field of recreation (running camps or working in parks), median hourly wages dropped 57 percent between 1950 and 2000, a time in which recreation workers went from being predominantly male to predominantly female. Other careers followed suit. Designers’ wages, for instance, fell 34 percent; biologists’ earnings fell 18 percentage points. And again, the reverse was true for men: when they began working in computer programming, which was traditionally a female field, the job’s prestige – and hence, wages – grew.

According to Miller, “It may come down to this troubling reality…work done by women simply isn’t valued highly.” It will be interesting to see if STEM salaries start going down as the number of young women entering these fields ticks upward.

Myth #4: Women simply need to be better negotiators.

We frequently hear that women are paid less because they don’t know how to negotiate better salary offers. But research shows that it’s not so much that women can’t negotiate; the reality is they tend not to because, when they do, they are penalized. When a woman plays hardball about her own worth, employers see it as overly confident and even aggressive. Of course, when a man negotiates for better pay, it’s seen as a sign of his competence. 

What is a fair-minded employer to do?

First, corporations should conduct self-audits to make sure their pay scales are based truly on ability and experience, and not gender. If it’s true that gender bias does not figure in hiring, pay and promotion, companies should have no fear of studying their own patterns. In 2014, five companies in Great Britain embarked on this process of self-discovery, including the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The firm made two important discoveries. First, they found a 15.1 percent disparity in pay, due mostly to the dearth of women in senior positions. This analysis ultimately led the company to question its promotion practices. They made significant changes; the number of women who had made partner status doubled in one year.

Secondly, the company found that they gave men retention bonuses at a far greater rate than they gave them to women. This, too, was corrected. Ideally, all corporate leadership would be this fearless and open to change.

But short of that, and at the very least, companies must stop the practice of penalizing employees for discussing their wages. Here in Connecticut, we passed a pay transparency bill last legislative session that makes it illegal for companies to stop employees from voluntarily divulging wage information, and it prevents retaliation against those who do.

Another change that would enhance pay equity is for states to adopt Paid Family and Medical Leave legislation, as New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and California have all done. While not a pay equity measure per se, paid leave helps women who must leave work temporarily retain their wages (and hence Social Security accruals). In addition, it helps women maintain status and position within the company, rather than allowing the unpaid leave to derail their earning power and career advancement.

Finally, paid leave makes sense for wider society; when people leave the workforce to care for their own illness, that of a loved one, or for the birth or adoption of a child, and do not have paid leave, they are 39 percent more likely to need some sort of public assistance when they return to work. It’s beyond time to eliminate sexism in pay and promotion, and to enhance family-friendly workplace policies. Wouldn’t it be great if next year on Equal Pay Day, we could celebrate real progress toward gender equity.

Carolyn Treiss is executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, a public policy arm of the General Assembly.

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