Equal pay for equal work. Or: why do ovaries make me worth less?

According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, Equal Pay Day was April 12 — which means women had to work three and a half months into 2011 to earn what men earned in 2010, because we earn about 77 percent of what men do.

We talked a lot about the gender pay gap in one of my favorite business school classes, compensation and motivation. The conversation included some of the ways women contribute to the gap including:

  • the careers we choose — the stereotype of women as nurses and teachers comes in part from our tendency to perform caring professions, which are historically lower paid. Are they lower paid because women predominantly did them? That’s a separate debate. But if high paying careers like finance, engineering and medicine are dominated by men, that will obviously skew the numbers.
  • raising children — women are more likely to take time off when they have children, and still shoulder more of the parenting responsibility, so if you prioritize your kids over your career, that might slow your rise on the corporate ladder, along with the raises that come with it.
  • our reluctance to ask for raises — this one wasn’t as obvious to me, but apparently men are more comfortable demanding more money when they take a new job and asking for raises once they’re there. So if a man and a woman are hired in with the same resume to do the same job, he might drive a harder bargain at the start and push for bigger increases along the way, leading to a bigger and bigger gap as time goes by.

So if we want to earn more, there are some pieces of that puzzle we control.

That doesn’t make the inequity less frustrating.

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Equal Pay Day, Mariko Chang, author of “Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It,” wrote:

While it’s true that men tend to enter higher-paying fields than women, that difference alone does not explain the gender wage gap. Even when they work in the same occupations, men earn more. For instance, the median weekly salary for full-time male pharmacists was $1,954 in 2009, compared to $1,475 for female pharmacists, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. And men even earn more than women in traditionally female-dominated occupations. For example, full-time female registered nurses earned an average of $1,035 per week, whereas men earned $1,090 — or an extra $2,860 per year.

If different occupations don’t explain the pay gap, might it be caused by women’s decisions to work less outside the home in order to care for their children? Researchers have found that even when differences in work experience, education, age, and occupation are held constant, women continue to earn less. In fact, research by Columbia University social work professor Jane Waldfogel reveals that mothers receive a 4 percent wage penalty for the first child and a 12 percent penalty for each additional child. In contrast, University of Washington economists Shelly Lundberg and Elaina Rose find that men’s wages increase 9 percent with the birth of their first child. One possible explanations sociologists offer is that, upon parenthood, men are perceived as more committed to their work and women less.

Christine Jacobs, an operations executive who managed power plants for NRG Energy and Exelon and Pharmaceutical plants in the Americas for the former Rhone Poulenc Rorer while raising three children as a single mother, blogs at leading-women.com. She wrote a piece for Forbes about women’s pay that said in part:

we must talk about women’s equality as unfinished business.

We repeat the refrains of “Who would have thought that in the year 2011, there would still only be 15 women CEOs in the Fortune 500? Who would have thought that only 15% of American corporate board positions would be held by women? Who would have thought that only 17% of the US Congress would be women?” And we are frustrated.

I earned my MBA in part from a desire to improve my earning potential, but I did not follow some of my classmates to Wall Street where pay can be stratospheric. So I’m far better off than my mother was, with her high school diploma and a working life that included waiting tables, bartending, bookkeeping and tax preparation, but not as well off as I could be. I suppose that’s still doing my part to push the percentages.

What do you think are the causes of the wage gap and what could help close it?

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