Despite extensive gains in civil rights and social standing, many American women still feel trapped beneath the proverbial glass ceiling, where they face discrimination in both promotions and pay.
But a Pew Research Center study released on Thursday shows progress: In the past few decades, jobs where women dominate have seen the most growth, a trend expected to continue as the country shifts into a knowledge-based economy.
That trend is particularly apparent in industries that demand higher social and analytical skills, which grew by 83 percent and 77 percent respectively from 1980 to 2015, the Pew study found. Women, while only representing 47 percent of the overall workforce, comprise of 55 percent and 52 percent of workers in fields that emphasize social and analytical skills. Examples of occupations with high social skills are chief executives and registered nurses. Jobs with high analytical skills would include software engineers and tax preparers.
On the other hand, demand for traditionally-male, labor-intensive jobs (welding, plumbing, flooring) remained static.
The shift in demand may have helped shrink the gender pay gap, the study shows. For every dollar a man earned in 1980, a woman got 60 cents; in 2015, a woman earned 80 cents for every dollar. But the gap still exists – and as the latest Census Bureau report shows, the female-to-male earnings ratio has not shown a statistically significant change since 2007.
An analysis of the earnings trends by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in September found that if current trends continue, women will not receive equal pay until 2059.
“We have gotten used to seeing slow or stagnant progress on closing the gender wage gap in the last decade,” Heidi Hartmann, the institute president said in a press release. “There are welcome signs of progress in these data, especially large real earnings gains for black women, but there is more to be done to speed up progress and make sure gains are sustained, broadly experienced, and contribute to closing the gender wage gap.”
That wage gap begins after college graduation, when female workers with a college degree earn an average hourly wage of $16.58 compared to men of the same standing who earn $20.98 an hour, according to one study released in April by the Economic Policy Institute.
“The biggest reason for the gender wage gap is that men and women tend to go in different occupations,” Julie Anderson, a research associate with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview. “Things like healthcare and education that employ large number of women are lower paying jobs compared to finance, IT and STEM industries.”
Even with the possibility of more jobs available for women in the future, if most of them choose service-sector, minimum wage, or part-time jobs, Ms. Anderson says, the wage gap will persist.
But even after pay data has been adjusted for factors such as industry, education, and experience, some studies still find evidence of a persistent wage gap, which experts contend may be due to discrimination in the workplace. It can take the form of lower pay for the same job despite equal qualifications.
Massachusetts tried to prevent such situations from occurring by passing an equal pay law that bars employers from asking job candidates about previous salaries, as The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time.
“We need to bring the issue of pay out of the shadows,” Vickie Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “But also, grapple with these underlying factors that continue to contribute to the wage gap.”
Another more indirect form of discrimination might be the lack of support for women, advocates say.
For example, pregnancies lead to concerns about expensive childcare costs and the lack of paid leave, factors that can cause women to drop out of the job market or choose more flexible occupations that pay less. A 2015 study found that many pregnant workers try to hide their condition as long as possible so their peers will continue to take them seriously, The Washington Post reported. They also tend to hesitate to request sick leave for fear that they will be seen as being unable to handle the job.
Anderson says ensuring paid sick days and paid family leave could help alleviate the disparity, as caring for children, as well as elderly or sick family members, often falls on the shoulders of women, who may have to quit their jobs to fulfill these responsibilities.
“Once you step out you’re losing those years of experience, you’re losing out on promotion,” she says.
President Obama took steps to address the gender pay gap in 2014 with the Equal Pay Day, signing measures that allow employees to discuss their pay with colleagues and demand employers to submit pay and demographic data to the US Labor Department.
In this presidential campaign, paid family leave is also a talking point of both candidates. Ivanka Trump, in her Republican National Convention speech this July, highlighted the wage gap and credited motherhood for “creating the greatest wage discrepancy in this country.”