Be Clear: Why We Need to Stop Talking About 78 Cents On the Dollar Wage Gap

Lydia Frank of Payscale says the talk about the gender wage gap is not as precise as it needs to be. For years, those fighting to close the gender wage gap have referred to some version of this stat – women earn 70-something cents for every dollar men earn. It’s not wrong, but it’s often misunderstood, and ultimately, it hurts the argument that gender equity in the workplace is still an issue.It is true that, on average, women make considerably less than men, but that’s not controlling for job title or any other factors that impact compensation. However, many people hear the stat and believe (or believe the person quoting the stat is arguing) that a man and woman working in the same job with similar work experience will have a 20-something percent pay difference.That’s where you get this type of response: “If you could get away with paying women that much less, all companies would hire an all-female staff,” said every gender pay gap non-believer everywhere.We’re adding fuel to the fire by not being clear.When you control for other factors that influence compensation – like years of work experience, education, industry, location, etc., the average wage gap comparing all women to all men in “like jobs” shrinks considerably – to roughly 97 cents on the dollar – according to the most recent PayScale gender pay gap study.Of course, when you drill into specific occupations or industries, the wage gap is often larger. And, it’s also true that the wage gap grows at each step up the career ladder. The remaining gender wage gaps are small but persistent, and any pay differences based solely on gender discrimination (intentional or not) should be addressed.So, what’s really behind that 78 cent on the dollar stat?Men and women are often pursuing different types of jobs, and the jobs men pursue in higher numbers tend to pay more – e.g. STEM careers. What’s disturbing is that it seems that when occupations shift from being dominated by male workers to being dominated by female workers, wages fall.Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University said this in an interview with The New York Times, “Once women start doing a job, ‘It just doesn’t look like it’s as important to the bottom line or requires as much skill. Gender bias sneaks into those decisions.’”So, simply telling women to pursue a different line of work is not a long-term fix. That advice doesn’t address the unconscious biases and cultural perceptions that still impact women’s ability to succeed in work cultures still constructed around traditionally masculine definitions of career success.In a recent Fast Company article, Sava Berhané, associate director of Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business, wrote, “Contemporary workplace culture often associates stereotypically masculine attributes with success.A Catalyst study asked corporate leaders to judge male and female leaders’ effectiveness based on the 10 behaviors commonly associated with leadership, including ‘taking-care’ traits (supporting, collaborating, rewarding, and inspiring) as well as ‘taking-charge’ traits (analyzing, influencing, and delegating). Male respondents believed men to be more effective than women on all of the ‘taking-charge’ traits, and women respondents for the most part agreed.This is in addition to a 2014 Gallup poll that showed that 26 percent of men and 39 percent of women still preferred a male boss if they were taking a new job.”Women are also severely underrepresented in senior-level positions within organizations. These are the stats we should be talking about. Drop 78 cents on the dollar and start talking more about the fact that there are only 21 female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies (down from 24 in 2014). That’s just over 4 percent.The argument I commonly hear is that women are opting out of a career track to pursue motherhood and aren’t interested in becoming executives. Do women have babies? Many do, yes. No one is a one-dimensional work bot. Not women and not men. Men have rich, full lives that also often include children and other non-work interests and obligations. And, pretending otherwise is insulting to both sexes. Men are not solely defined by their jobs, and women are not solely defined by their family planning choices.[bctt tweet=“Men are not solely defined by their jobs, and women are not solely defined by their family planning choices. #25not95”]Anne-Marie Slaughter got it right when she wrote in The Atlantic that, “How people think and talk about an issue matters. Every time people say ‘working mother’ but don’t say ‘working father,’ every time people talk about parental issues (or caregiving issues generally) as ‘women’s issues,’—together these small failures continually reinforce the assumption that it is up to women to raise children and care for elders, even though most people now accept that it is up to both women and men to earn a living. That assumption, in turn, enables male-female inequality to persist.’”If we can stop bickering about what that tired 70-something cent stat actually means, we can get to the crux of the issue which is that American work culture is fundamentally broken and does not support fully dimensional human beings. Only because of stubborn gender stereotypes that harken back to 1950s America do these issues appear to be affecting women exclusively.In truth, no one should have to choose between work and family. It’s possible to be an effective leader in the workplace and an effective parent at home – at the same time.[bctt tweet=“It’s possible to be an effective leader in the workplace and an effective parent at home – at the same time. #25not95”] On the whole, our society doesn’t believe that to be true, or women (who are more often caretakers in our society) wouldn’t be perceived as less capable because they demonstrate empathy or have a kid in diapers.Lydia Frank is Sr. Director of Editorial & Marketing for PayScale, a compensation software company which helps employees and employers have more open and mutually beneficial conversations about pay. She writes a regular column on salary negotiation for Money magazine and has contributed articles to a number of other publications including Fortune, Harvard Business Review and TechCrunch.