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Beyond Bias: Factors That Drive the Wage Gap

Mother attempts to work from home on the computer and phone whilst her daughter copies her, makes a mess and throws the laundry around.
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It’s a story that many women are familiar with. While a program manager at a management consulting firm, Roshawnna Novellus discovered that a male colleague’s paycheck was 20 percent larger. “We were the same age, with the same experience and had the same client satisfaction score,” said Novellus, who is now CEO of  EnrichHER, a funding platform for women in business.

What was different? Their gender. Novellus’ story has a happy ending at least; she presented the VP of her company with evidence of her performance and requested that her compensation be matched to her male counterpart. Novellus’ request was granted. Of course, for millions of women, the wage gap persists.
Roshawnna Novelus, CEO of EnrichHER, poses for a portrait leaning up against a wall  Roshawnna Novellus
At this point, we’re painfully aware that women don’t get paid as much as men. Women make 82 cents on the dollar, and women of color make even less. And it’s not just simple gender discrimination that causes this disparity. There are complex factors that affect why women make less, which makes this a difficult social problem to tackle. Unequal responsibilities at home, lack of paid family and medical leave, and lack of access to high-paying fields are some of the inter-connected factors behind the wage gap. I spoke with women who have experienced these factors personally.
Second shift 

The “second shift” is a term that came about with the 1989 book of the same name. In heterosexual relationships the bulk of the cooking, cleaning, and caregiving is done by women, even when they also have full-time jobs. This leaves women less time to focus on their careers.
When both of us work from home the kids are much more likely to come interrupt my work and leave him alone.
Samara Bay poses for a portrait in front of a book shelf.  Samara Bay
One way that Samara Bay, speech coach and host of the podcast Permission to Speak, addressed this issue was to have a clear discussion with her husband. When breastfeeding her baby, Bay was physically tethered to more of the childcare. Breastfeeding is an aspect of caregiving that falls to women, and it’s a time-consuming endeavor. Feeding a child frequently throughout the day (or pumping) is time away from work. But when their son weaned, Bay and her husband had a renegotiation about assumptions around all aspects of childcare.

“Starting from the baseline that there were no longer any biological imperatives freed us to talk about our actual strengths and our current logistics and loosely map out how we could share parenting in a way that felt fair,” Bay explained. “Permission to Speak is all about how we stand up for ourselves in the moments that matter—and we did it!”

“My husband's work has often had to take priority because he makes more money and our health insurance is dependent upon him booking a certain amount of acting jobs,” said Beth Newell, author of pregnancy guide There’s No Manual and host of We Knows Parenting podcast. “When both of us work from home the kids are much more likely to come interrupt my work and leave him alone.”

Take action: How you can support gender equality in the U.S.

Beth Newell
This scenario is common in many households, leading to less time for women to focus on their careers. And the current COVID-19 crisis is magnifying existing inequalities. As Helen Lewis recently wrote in The Atlantic, “All this looking after—this unpaid caring labor—will fall more heavily on women, because of the existing structure of the workforce.”

Newell adds, “My husband is a really active parent but sometimes men don't know what they don't know, and the emotional labor of making sure we have groceries and toilet paper can take a toll, especially because that work often feels unseen and unappreciated.”

There’s a second shift at home, and there’s often a second shift at work too, said CEO of WOMEN Unlimited Rosina Racioppi, noting that, when women take on extra responsibilities at work without extra compensation, it fuels the wage gap.

“We often see women taking on a large role at work, without recognition or promotion. It is critical for women to understand how they add value to their organization,” she said. With this knowledge, “women can more effectively articulate their value in the workplace, demonstrate their impact and ask for the compensation they deserve.”
Breaking in

Access to high-paying fields is another factor behind the wage gap. Pediatrician Whitney Casares was determined to become a doctor, despite the difficulties of breaking into a profession made up of mostly men.

“My mother knew I would face a fight as I entered the medical field, in part because I was a woman,” said Casares, author of The New Baby Blueprint. “I have to show I am fully invested every day I’m on the job if I don’t want to be counted out completely in executive-level decision-making chances and opportunities for career advancement. That’s just the way it is in my line of work.”
Even in fields where women are the majority, men may still receive greater compensation.
When hardware engineer Natalie Clark decided to major in Electrical Engineering, adjusting to a male-dominated environment was difficult.

“It made me question whether I belonged in this field, and it fueled self-doubt,” she said.

Clark credits a strong early education in math and physics for fighting past insecurities. “So much of my college experience, and early career for that matter, was painfully intimidating.” And once she entered the field, Clark did indeed encounter the wage gap. “No matter how we sliced it, our two male coworkers definitely had higher salaries and were promoted faster than the three women,” she said.

Even in fields where women are the majority, men may still receive greater compensation. Pay inequality is something Julee Brooks sees all the time in the non-profit world.

“It’s a combo of women not getting the top seat and then not getting paid as much if they do,” said the Chief Executive Officer of Los Angeles-based youth agency Woodcraft Rangers.

But there are improvements happening. “My industry is no longer allowed to base rate on prior quotes which should help level the playing field,” said Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Though they are still the minority, opportunities are growing for women in film.
A system of support

Social support is a helpful tool in closing the wage gap. Annie Sklaver Orenstein is a research manager at Instagram, but there was a time when she was intimidated to try for a job in tech.

“The reputation is definitely that it’s a boys’ club,” said Orenstein, who is also the founder of website Dispatch from Daybreak. But she’s found a place in the industry thanks to other women. “From formal women mentorship programs to informal mom chats, women’s leadership conferences and Lean In circles, I’ve met incredible mentors and had rich experiences mentoring others,” Orenstein said. “I hope I can help other women like me know that there’s a place for them in tech, and that they’ll be met with strong female coworkers and company support."
Closing the wage gap and eliminating the ‘double shift’ shouldn’t mean women have to go above and beyond.
But women can’t access that support if they can’t afford to work in the first place. Many women must leave the workforce because childcare is so expensive. In a heterosexual marriage, when one parent has to stay home to provide care to a child, it’s more often the woman. Because women generally make less money, and also because more companies offer maternity leave than paternity leave.

According to Laura Kohn of San Diego Workforce Partnership, childcare consumes 40 percent of the budget for an average family of four in San Diego. Their research shows that 94 percent of those involuntarily working part-time in the U.S. due to childcare issues are women. Without affordable childcare, and because they typically earn less than their male spouses, mothers are often the ones to reduce their working hours, according to the Committee for Economic Development. That situation compounds—every year a women spends out of the workforce equates to three years in lost income. This puts mothers even further behind when it comes to income. Paid family and medical leave policies need to be extended equally to men, so that the option exists for fathers to take a break from the workforce.

New family-friendly policies at her workplace have helped Clark continue her engineering career. “Since returning from maternity leave, my lead has exempted me from weekly meetings that are scheduled for India time zones, because those times absolutely do not work with the baby’s feeding schedule.” She also credits her supportive environment to a shift in company culture. “If a team member has a familial responsibility, colleagues are understanding and flexible.”

“Closing the wage gap and eliminating the ‘double shift’ shouldn’t mean women have to go above and beyond,” said Casares. “It should mean we improve paid parental leave policies for both genders, embrace flexible work arrangements, and promote more financially-reasonable childcare options.”