By Claire Suddath
There are two ways of looking at the wage gap. The first is to take a bird’s-eye view. The most significant reason women still make 80 percent of what men do is that they’re clustered into lower-paying fields, as seen at Citigroup. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, of the 20 most common careers for men and women, only four overlap. In other words, men still work in primarily male-dominated fields and women in female-dominated ones. Roughly 79 percent of elementary and middle school teachers are women; 80 percent of software developers are men. Industries such as law and medicine are more mixed, but most secretaries and administrative assistants are still women (94 percent), and most electricians are men (97 percent). The traditionally male-dominated fields pay better—so much better, in fact, that a man with just a high school diploma is likely to make more money than a woman with some college education or even an associate’s degree.
Salaries, of course, aren’t based on a set of immutable scientific facts. Are female-dominated occupations worth less to society? Are they easier to do? It’s true that electricians, who earn on average about $57,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, need vocational training to ensure they can properly wire buildings. But anyone who’s struggled to find a good teacher to educate their child ($55,000, despite requiring a bachelor’s degree) or round-the-clock care for an elderly parent ($21,900) knows the value in that work and the skill required to do it well.
Women aren’t earning less money solely because they pursue or are pushed into low-paying work. According to a 2009 study published in the academic journal Social Forces that looked at 50 years’ worth of U.S. Census Bureau income data, when a substantial number of women move into a field, as has happened in biology and design, the average wage drops for everyone in that field, men included. The opposite can be true, too. In the early days of computer science, when programming was considered a monotonous, low-level task akin to typing or filing, there were more women in the field, and the pay was much lower. Now that we think about it as a way to design the technological future, more men are entering computer science, and the pay has risen. The share of women pursuing degrees in the field has dropped from a high of 37 percent in 1984 to 18 percent today.