Forty-five years ago, Congress passed a resolution designating August 26 “Women’s Equality Day,” commemorating the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Much has improved for women since that resolution, not to mention since the amendment passed in 1920. Women no longer need a husband to co-sign for a credit card or mortgage; they have gained basic legal protections against sexual harassment and discrimination, and secured independence to make decisions regarding their own reproductive health.
Still, equality of pay and professional opportunities continue to elude women across socio-economic strata and levels of educational attainment. April 10 marks “Equal Pay Day,” in recognition that women would need to continue working this long into a new year to earn the equivalent of what men earned during the previous year alone. For African American women the gap is even more severe—August 7 was “Black Women’s Equal Pay Day,” calculated by the same equation, measured against average earnings of white men.
The gap cannot be explained by discrepancies in education or experience, or even differences in requests for raises. More structural challenges are to blame. Inequality in compensation may be due less to outright discrimination than to limitations women face regarding opportunities for promotion or social pressures to scale back or leave the workforce altogether. Indeed, as women enter the workforce in a given field, overall wages tend to decrease as the labor is considered less valuable; or conversely, wages rise when men enter the field—as was the case in the history of computing.
Other factors point less directly to inequality for women. Although women now constitute more than half the undergraduate student population in the United States, they also hold two-thirds of the student loan debt. This constrains the kinds of jobs they can take after graduation, and wage inequality means it takes them longer to repay the loans than their male peers.
Women are over-represented in low-wage work; the lower the wage, the larger percentage of women in those positions. Women are approaching half of the overall workforce (47%) yet constitute 69% of the lowest-wage workforce, those making less than $10 per hour. One-quarter of women in lowest wage jobs are also supporting children, versus only 11% of men. Of the 30 highest-paying jobs, 26 are dominated by men, while nearly the inverse is true for the lowest-paying jobs. The situation is unlikely to improve; three of the top five occupations expected to grow in the next decade are low-wage and predominantly held by female workers.
Women are also prevalent in jobs that are not considered “low-wage” by hourly rate but are contract or “contingent work,” despite requiring high levels of skill or education. For example, 60% of adjunct professors in academia are women. These positions are paid 27% less per course than regular full-time faculty, more typically held by men.
Despite recent attention to the challenging workplace climate for women in technology, the income disparity between genders is actually smaller in technology fields than for occupations overall and smaller yet in non-coastal cities than in the tech hubs of Silicon Valley and metropolitan areas in the northeast. Even so, a global analysis considering women’s participation, opportunity, and pay equity in tech ranked the United States #39 out of 41 countries in the OECD and EU. And participation in leadership positions has stagnated. For example, the percentage of female Chief Information Officers in institutions of higher education has hovered around 25% for the last decade, a few points higher than the number of female CIOs at Fortune 500 companies—just 17% in 2017. Women entrepreneurs face daunting obstacles to gain access to capital for their startups. Despite recent announcements of venture funds devoted to women-led startups, female-founded companies received just 2% of VC investments last year. There’s a long way to go.
Ironically, equality for women may be accelerated by attending to areas where men’s protections lag. Society would benefit, for instance, from policies guaranteeing equal terms for men to take family leave, whether to care for young children or elderly parents. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for each parent to care for a newborn or adopted child. Despite this opportunity, fathers are often reluctant to use the benefit or other guaranteed leave for fear of negative effects on their careers. In 2004, California became the first state to guarantee six weeks of paid parental leave. A study of fathers’ leave-taking practices after the law’s implementation showed that only 3% of those eligible took leave, and–more striking–twice as many took leave to care for infant sons than for daughters.
On Women’s Equality Day, what measures can be considered to improve equality for women and men? Research suggests: Monitor occupational pay gaps and redress inequities. Reduce effects of implicit bias through blind resume screening and mandating diverse slates of candidates for staff positions, board seats, and the like. Create incentives for men to join female-dominated professions, such as childcare professionals, K-12 teachers, and nurses. Boosting male participation in typically female occupations may not only bring greater parity in wages but also increase the propensity of fathers to take leave to care for newborn children. Support increases to the minimum wage or “living wage” campaigns for their positive impact on women and families. Experiments with universal basic income (UBI) programs may similarly exert an equalizing effect for women. Achieving gender equality requires expanding opportunities and broadening cultural expectations for women and men—both are needed to balance the scales.
Camille Crittenden is the co-founder of the Women in Technology Initiative at the University of California (WITI@UC), which envisions a world in which women in technical fields are proportionately represented and equitably compensated throughout the professional ranks in industry, academia and the public sector. WITI’s 2018 conference will be held on November 16 at UC Berkeley.