Gender Discrimination in the Workplace— Where are We in 2016?
November 29, 2016
Edit: This article was written before the conclusion of this year's presidential election, and thus my speculation at the very end has proven to be just that...speculation. My optimism, I believe, is still warranted, because the women working in this country have proven themselves time and again to be too powerful a force to be ignored.
Gender Problems in the Workplace
The history of women in the workplace is one of steep prejudice and small steps. Progress tends to come at an agonizing pace because the subject of gender discrimination in the workplace comes pre-packaged with all kinds of assumptions and biases.
Talking is the first step towards action, and this is a conversation that has heated up in the public sphere, particularly with the prospect of a woman president on our horizon. So let's talk. And I want to talk about the way we talk.
Isn't it strange that we say "women in the workplace," like it's a fringe group? Women make up nearly half the working population, their interests can hardly be called "special" interests anymore.
And what about discrimination against men in the workplace? I don't have the stats on me, but I'm willing to bet there's a not-insignificant number of male nurses, teachers, librarians, and stay at home dads wanting in on this conversation.
To be fair, though, and not to diminish male gender discrimination cases, (which is a topic for another post) we focus on women because they're usually the ones facing discrimination.
Some of the problems we have with gender come from the implicit assumption that men do valuable work and women don't. Even in their most "traditional" roles, however,
women have always had jobs to do. The problem is that women's work is considered less valuable— both socially and economically— no matter what their jobs are.
The old line used to go that women ought to be paid less because they choose to work for supplemental income, whereas a man must work to support his family. But now with women as an equal or primary breadwinner in 40% of families, women still face this kind of prejudice. And these old biases are hanging on.
One such bias is that women are considered to be less of an investment by their employers. The reasoning is that a woman has less to offer the company, in the long-term, because it's expected that she will eventually leave to raise a family; so she gets passed over for raises and promotions.
Many women do leave the labor force for this reason (men are beginning to do so in larger numbers as well) some of them for long periods of time. And, unfortunately, there are disincentives to coming back. The high price of childcare is a big reason, as the monthly cost of full time childcare can easily top $1000. At that price point, it is often more affordable to stay at home with the kids. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of access to paid parental leave, or when the amount of paid leave available isn't enough.
A partial solution to this problem is to offer leave for both the mother and father of a newborn child. This is an attempt to level the playing field between men and women, and to normalize the idea that men can take time off to care for children. Theoretically, if both men and women are equally likely to take parental leave, it will be harder to justify discriminating against women for that reason.
California's Paid Family Leave Act is one of the first in the country to offer equal access to paid leave for both new mothers and new fathers, at 55% their normal pay rate, as long as the employee meets certain qualifications (e.g. working at least 25 hours per week for the company in the last 12 months). But the amount of paid leave available is limited to 6 weeks, not long enough for many parents, and although the federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees up to 12 weeks of leave it doesn't guarantee pay for that time. So far only four states, California, Rhode Island, Washington, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have laws mandating paid family leave.
Money troubles aside, there is still the troubling stigma attached to taking any kind of extended leave, be it of the parental kind or time off to care for an ailing family member. The law protects employment status while employees are on leave, and prohibits termination for taking or requesting leave, but it can't protect against damage to your career prospects.
Depending on the industry and company, taking 6–12 weeks off for parental leave can put you out of the running for a lucrative promotion. Those who choose to stay at home for longer suffer not just the stigma, but also resume and experience gaps that can seriously hamper a career.
Not surprisingly, as the New York Times reported, new parents value flexibility in a job, sometimes preferring it to higher pay. And many mothers who leave the workforce say they would return if allowed to work from home at least part of the time, or if they had more flexible hours.
But the cost of flexible work is often enough flexible income, and women are more likely to work in part time jobs than men are, because of this pressure to care for family members. Part time jobs pay less than full time ones by all metrics. A company will pay a part time employee less per hour than a full time employee in the same position, and justify it with the similar costs in overhead. So with more women working part time than men, we can see the beginnings of a wage gap.
The Gender Wage Gap— More Than Statistics
Today, women make up 47% of the workforce, three quarters of whom work full time, and, on top of that, the US Dept. of Labor estimates that women will account for 51% of labor force growth between 2008 and 2018.
Women's labor force participation rate sky-rocketed in the latter half of the 20th century, coming up from just 28% in 1948 to the numbers we see today. And while a statistically significant number of women left the market during the 2008 financial crash, that percentage is creeping back up.
In very broad terms, it's beginning to look like the American working landscape is almost split between men and women. This statement, however, doesn't apply to certain industries where there are still gender imbalances. Construction, carpentry, and skilled trades, for instance, remain overwhelmingly male industries. And, on the flip side, nurses, secretaries, and social workers remain largely female. More troubling, perhaps, is research showing gender bias is the norm in STEM careers, some of the most lucrative and growing job prospects.
Addressing these biases, on an industry-to-industry basis, is a cultural project that will take time and effort. And it's certainly beyond the scope of this article. But it can't be denied that women have made tremendous strides toward representation in the workforce overall. It stands to reason, then, that women would be on even ground with men just by sheer force of numbers. And yet, women still face significant challenges; with the most controversial of these being the gender wage gap.
The wage gap, and its much touted figures, is a slippery object. According to a White House brief, it is estimated that median income for women is 79% of men's income. This is an oft-discussed statistic, and while it is telling, it should come with a caveat or two. The 79% figure pertains to gross income, and notably doesn't account for the different choices that men and women make for their careers. There is strong evidence that, after adjusting for factors like career and degree choices, the pay gap is only as high as 4.8%–7%, and some estimates put it below 1% after controlling for certain factors.
Still, though, it's difficult to explain away the pay gap as a statistical artifact. Even if the pay gap can be explained away with stats adjustments, the idea is endemic. And what detractors don't account for is the fact that median pay in jobs where men are the majority is 21% higher than jobs where women are the majority.
Some states are well on their way to addressing this problem. Which is why the state legislature added the"Fair Pay" amendment to California's equal pay act (labor Code Section 1197.5)
California has some of the toughest labor laws in the country. With the new law that has been in effect since the beginning of this year, California's aggressive attitude toward righting workplace wrongs (at least in the letter of its laws— enforcement lags behind) extends to gender equality.
The difference between California's "Fair Pay Act" (SB 358) and other equal pay legislation across the country is one phrase in particular. The new law stipulates that men and women who perform "substantially similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility" receive similar pay.
"Substantially similar work" is the operative phrase here. It means that if two people are doing much the same work, regardless of job title, then they should receive the same wage. This definition differs significantly from the older version of California's Equal Pay Act, which stated that only employees engaged in "equal" work would be entitled to equal pay.
The change in verbiage is intended to address the problem of employees with different titles, who do the same work, getting paid differently. NPR's Laura Sydell put it this way when she reported on the law back in January.
"In hotels, you have housekeepers, and you have janitors. Usually the janitors are men, and the housekeepers are women. The housekeepers tend to make less than the janitors, but really their work is substantially similar. Maybe the janitors are the ones who scrub the floors in the ballroom, and the housekeepers are the ones vacuuming the rugs in the room, but they really shouldn't be paid differently."
This kind of de facto discrimination is difficult to address at a state or national level because it brings with it the baggage of so-called men's work and women's work. Certain studies show, for instance, that women are expected to do additional "housekeeping" work around the office on top of their stated responsibilities, and that even women in senior-level positions are expected to take on the role of "mother hen" and ersatz assistant.
These prejudices are ultimately what's behind the pay gap, and what makes this such a tough issue even in our enlightened age of 2016. Further complicating the issues at hand is the fact that women's labor force participation rate has dropped from a high of 74% in 2000 to 69%. It may seem like a small change, but, in that same time, other leading economies have seen steady growth. Many of our friends and neighbors in the western industrialized world hover around 80%.
California's Fair Pay Amendment is a good start, and an example for the rest of the country on how to begin addressing pay inequality between similar jobs roles with similar duties. But it's unclear what the actual effect will be on the rate of pay for women.
Part of this is due to California's already overworked division of labor standards enforcement. But there is an undeniable factor here that few are talking about, and that's the fact that income for all Americans is stagnating, not just women. With the gap between wages and productivity continuing to rise, as it has for the last 30 years, and the threat of losing jobs to automation, women's economic troubles are a sign of slow economic recovery and overall income inequality.
"To truly maximize women’s economic potential, we must focus on closing the gender wage gap and raising wages more generally. This is because gender wage parity does not improve women’s economic prospects to the greatest possible extent if wages for men and women remain equal but stagnant in the future. Wage growth is a women’s issue. To maximize women’s economic security, we must raise wages by pursuing policies that intentionally tilt bargaining power back toward low- and moderate-wage workers, and we must end discriminatory practices that contribute to the gender wage gap."
Despite these challenges that women and all Americans face, things really are looking up. With proactive legislation in place in California, and gaining traction around the country, we're on the right track to narrow the wage gap.
With growing awareness of the current state of wealth inequality, the public seems more determined now than at any time since the great depression to hold politicians accountable for policies that lead to gross inequality.
What form this accountability takes will probably be decided in the coming election. With it looking likely that a woman will soon be promoted to the most important job in the country, if not the world, one can't help but be optimistic about what the future holds for working people.