Behind the Gender Pay Gap
By Erica Widjaja
When one asks about the underlying source of inequality in the workforce, many people– and until recently, myself included –still believe that gender discrimination is to blame. In the past, that was accurate. Important facets of workplace prejudice in the 1950s were cultural and social gender norms which regard women as unequipped to participate in the labour force, thus rendering them to restrictive homemaker roles. Other factors also fueled the gaping chasm between gender earnings, such as lower education rates, lower workplace participation, and major undertaking of low-paying, “feminine” jobs by women.
But that was almost seven decades ago. Back then, refusing to hire women simply because they were women was considered legitimate. Today, it is a common civil rights violation. Women are no longer perceived as less competent or qualified, even undertaking men in academic performances and occupational credentials. Gender proportions have flipped since the 1970s– now, 56% of college-educated graduates are women. The number of women CEOs are hitting record highs. Unemployment hit record lows. Many nations have refined laws to give women equal career opportunities as men, particularly necessitating equal pay for equal work with laws such as the Equal Pay Act. On the other hand, many companies have committed themselves to set target recruitment levels and establish salary transparency towards their employees.
While discrimination against women is still alive in every aspect of the word, it is only very slightly accountable for the present-day existence of the wage gap. So, if not discrimination, then what is the real disparity between career men and women in contemporary times today? Unfortunately, reality is never clean-cut. The roots of every problem are always the most arduous to dig out.
One time, I was talking– venting –to my friend about glaring wage disparities between married, child-bearing men and women in Indonesia, to which she defended the discrepancies, saying, “Well, you know, research does show that women have lower performance than men in the workplace.” What she said had stuck with me until now because it was incredibly true. In general, adult female employees tend to log in fewer hours, produce fewer accomplishments, and take longer to be promoted to higher-paying positions within the same time frame as men. Here is where most writers would include drastic facts and figures comparing women’s career progressions to men to corroborate their previous assertion, but I am not going to do that. Frankly, because the numbers are– for the lack of a better word –depressing, they are only inclined to worsen the corporate ladder.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest figures from the US Bureau of Labor statistics show that despite the addition of jobs in September, excessive numbers of people were dropping out of the workforce due to escalated caregiving burden– the overwhelming majority (4 times more likely) being women in their prime working ages. Of the 1.1 million people who left the workforce voluntarily, 865,000 are women, in contrast to only 216,000 men. Between caring for the children who are learning virtually at home, executing household chores and working full-time, women worldwide are faced with the unfathomable decision to choose one or the other– a dilemma that tends to hit career women far more often than men. This was exacerbated by the lack of child-care services, which was down by 18% from the start of the pandemic. In these women’s decisions to leave work, the higher-wage earner made economic sense– more often than not, the husband –to continue working and provide financial support.
The Childcare Conundrum
Such bleak nominal statistics are attributable to a feature called the “child-care conundrum.” It is a set of pervasive cultural conventions which govern the societal perception of women as primary caregivers and that they are, in extension, responsible for the bulk of child-care. But in a capitalistic society, this means trading a woman’s independence for the sake of keeping the home fires burning.
At this point, there is almost universal support for mothers to pursue stellar careers, and the idea of gender equality has been fully embraced by the masses. “But when it comes to the home front, traditional values dominate,” says Claire Cain Miller. More than ever in preceding years, men are becoming increasingly responsible for handling household demands and caregiving– but their efforts still do not amount to even half of what women contribute to household labour.
Upon the arrival of a child, working mothers are eight times more likely to manage sick children, take ten times as much temporary leave from work and are much more likely to switch to a less time-consuming and demanding profession than their male counterparts. As women cater to more domestic demands and allow more interruptions during work, they lose out on raises, promotions, incomes, and benefits. Ultimately, they earn significantly less than the male counterparts they initially started with at the beginning of their careers. Outside of career ramifications, working women are further loaded with greater stress and “working-mom guilt”. The latter comprises the shame and fear in being a lacking mother and employee and coupled with self-reproach when they choose to allot time towards self-care. While it is true that most women who choose to ease off from their careers do so willingly and happily, it begs the question: can women have it all?
What Can Be Done
“Communicate, advocate and push for change,” says Forbes woman Maggie Germano. Although orthodox domestic roles cannot be revamped overnight, women should start the important, long-overdue conversation with their spouses and solicit the dispensation of household duties between them that is both equitable and nonpartisan.
Next is to be an active participant in advocating and raising awareness for national paid family leave policies and public child-care funding on the legislative level. By joining the forces of both men and women, we can demand policymakers to propose potential legal solutions that may alleviate work-family struggles or support organizations fighting for the same cause.
Employers can also push to implement company policies that can relieve the pressure of both child-bearing men and women and disband well-established expectations of men working 24/7. As members of society, we must also learn to relinquish prevailing social constructions from our consciousness, starting from seemingly minuscule actions, such as parents distributing more household chores to the girls or schools contacting mothers exceedingly more often than fathers.
In the words of sociologist Joanna Pepin, “Our beliefs about gender are really strong and sticky.” Thus, any efforts to expunge discrepancies must start by tackling the ironclad social guidelines set towards men and women, making for a fallacious standard of living that can compromise their ambition and identity. The very core of the wage gap is how we anticipate women to achieve career successes comparable to that of men and expect them to shoulder the lion’s share of domestic chores and child-care.
But men are fighting their own set of battles. With male workforce participation has been on a steep decline this past decade, the question arises whether fewer jobs or fewer men are seeking the jobs. While the reason remains obscure, it seems that the latter becoming true. As more women move into male-dominated professions and the economy shifts in favour of “female jobs”, some men are reluctant to cross the gender divide due to stigma associated with traditionally feminine careers and the fear of challenging masculine ideals, despite its forecasted growth in opportunities and pay.
In addition to the workforce implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, current male workforce participation trends further highlight the significance of gender neutrality and the potential rewards that may follow when strictly binary interpretations of gender identities are discarded to the trash. Already a long-standing and lingering issue, the 2019 global pandemic has merely augmented the perennial gap between gender earnings and exacerbated its detrimental aftermaths. By the time the pandemic resolves, dwindling female labour force statistics would lead to adverse and long-lasting effects on women’s workforce participation, thereby undermining their hard-fought triumphs over the last few decades. To achieve gender equality, both sides must defy the stereotypes governing them and exist unencumbered by social conformities. Only then can we, as individuals, thrive to the fullest extent, manifest our greatest potential and become formidable.
This article also appeared in the magazine Tempo in Bahasa Indonesian.
Erica is a second-year SHC resident and biomedical engineering undergraduate from Jakarta, Indonesia. She regards writing as an important means of self-discovery, self-reflection and self-inspiration.