When the comedian Ricky Gervais joked that he was paid the same to host the Golden Globes as the actresses Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — combined — his barbed humor most likely resonated in many workplaces.
More than a half-century after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap is still with us. Women earn 79 cents for every dollar men earn, according to the Census Bureau.
That statistic is based on the median salaries of full-time workers, not men and women doing the same jobs, but other data show that the gap occurs in a broad range of occupations. Women who are surgeons earn 71 percent of what men earn, while food preparers earn 87 percent, according to data from Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist.
The gap cannot be entirely explained by anything economists can measure — workers’ education and experience, the jobs they choose, the hours they work or the time they take off. That leaves other factors that are hard to quantify, like discrimination or women’s perception of the choices available to them.
So what might work to close the gap? Social scientists and policy makers have some ideas, as do companies that have been trying to combat the problem in their work forces.
Publish Everyone’s Pay
When employers publish people’s salaries, the pay gap shrinks.
Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University, has found that salary transparency raises wages, in part by lending legitimacy to employees’ arguments in wage bargaining. “Even being cognizant of gender pay disparity being an issue can change norms,” he said.
That has been true in the public sector, where disclosing pay information is often required. Alexandre Mas, an economist at Princeton, studied the effects of a 2010 California law that required cities to publish municipal salaries. It prompted pay cuts, but only among men.
Women might have been spurred to negotiate after seeing that their salaries were lower, he theorized, or cities might have made salaries more equitable to avoid lawsuits.
A few European countries have required that big companies publish pay information by sex. President Obama in 2014 required that federal contractors report it to the Labor Department. Other American companies say they have analyzed pay this way, though most do it privately.
Marc Benioff, the C.E.O of Salesforce.com, said last year that after such an analysis, the company spent $3 million to make women’s salaries equal to men’s. Kimberly-Clark and PricewaterhouseCoopers have said their examinations led managers to address the fact that fewer women were reaching top positions.
To Negotiate, or Not
Men are paid more partly because they’re much more likely to ask for it.
When receiving job offers, 51.5 percent of men and 12.5 percent of women asked for more money, according to a study of Carnegie Mellon University graduate students by Linda Babcock, an economist at the university. In other research, she found that when women did ask, they asked for 30 percent less than men requested.
Because starting salaries determine raises and future salaries, women who do not bargain lose as much as $750,000 for middle-income jobs and $2 million for high-income jobs over their careers, Ms. Babcock found.
But her research and that of others has found that women are penalized for negotiating, while men are rewarded for the same behavior. (As the actress Jennifer Lawrence wrote in Lenny after the Sony hacking revealed that she was paid less than her male co-stars, she didn’t fight for more because “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ ”)
One solution, Ms. Babcock said, is to coach women to negotiate. Another is to change corporate practices so the people who set compensation are aware of the disparity and are advocates for women during negotiations.
Another answer is to ban pay negotiation completely. That is what Ellen Pao did when she was chief executive of Reddit. The company established pay ranges based on roles and experience and gave applicants nonnegotiable offers.
“We put the onus on the company to pay fairly instead of on candidates to negotiate fair pay,” Ms. Pao wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.
Don’t Rely on Previous Salaries
If women can lose millions over their careers because they get job offers based on pay that is already low, one way to stop the pattern is to ignore their past salaries.
Google has said it does this and instead makes offers based on what a job is worth.
In August, the federal Office of Personnel Management said government hiring managers could no longer rely on an employee’s previous salary when setting his or her new one. The acting director, Beth Cobert, explained that the practice particularly disadvantaged women who had taken time off to raise children. Women are also more likely to have worked in the lower-paying public or nonprofit sectors.
“Don’t ask about salary history for new hires, and it really reduces the impact of previous discrimination,” Ms. Babcock said. “I think that is the most effective thing organizations can do.”
Make Work Easier for Mothers
Research has found that salaries at men and women’s first jobs out of school are fairly similar. The gender pay gap widens a few years later when women start having children.
Sometimes their pay lags because they take breaks from work when their children are young, work fewer hours or take more time off than men for child care crises. Sometimes their employers assume they’ll do so, even if they don’t.
Policies that help keep women in the work force, like affordable child care, paid sick days and parental leave, could help. In states that offer paid parental leave, for instance, mothers are more likely to return to work, work more hours and earn higher wages, economists have found.
“If a cashier gets pregnant, has no parental leave, has to leave and reapply for her job, that’s not the same as making a career choice,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. “One thing policy can do is make it easier for women to stick with their careers.”
Build More Flexible Workplaces
Ms. Goldin of Harvard has found that the pay gap is largest in occupations with the least flexibility in terms of where and when people work, like finance and medicine. The gap shrinks when people can work on their own schedules, as in many tech jobs and when people can easily substitute for one another, as happens among pharmacists. Then, women aren’t penalized as much for working fewer hours.
Companies might address the culture of face time and overwork, and change how they operate. In a pharmacy, for instance, electronic medical records have made it easier for different pharmacists to serve the same patient.
Change the Law
Federal law doesn’t require most of these things, so some lawmakers are trying other tactics.
The strongest equal pay bill in the country went into effect in California this month. It says that men and women must be paid the same for similar jobs, not just for exactly the same job at the same site, as the looser federal Equal Pay Act requires. The California law also prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for discussing pay.
Proposed federal legislation known as the Paycheck Fairness Act would require companies to report pay data to the government, give grants for negotiation training and make class-action lawsuits easier. But that legislation is stalled in Congress.
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