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Women can’t lean in to fix structural pay gaps 

Women can’t lean in to fix structural pay gaps 

In the United States, women are encouraged to be part of the solution: lean in, we’re told, negotiate a higher starting salary, raise your hand for projects, and write emails without too many exclamation points. 

But removing the “just checking in” language from emails is not going to address the underlying systemic causes of gender inequality in our workplaces. Not when United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently warned that gender equality is 300 years away.  

Not when gender inequality in the workplace remains a global problem. From sexual harassment to glass ceilings and sticky floors, women face structural obstacles to advancement. And not when we can clearly see that the future of work is sexist.  

Women can't lean in, or move out, or move up if they are consistently and persistently paid less than men. In fact, on Equal Pay Day, 23 years into a new Millennium, women must work until March 14 to earn what men earned the prior year. On average, White women earn 79 cents for every dollar men earn, and the gap is even larger for women of color

If we follow the lean in mantra, women should solve the pay gap by advocating for themselves. But women as individuals can’t fix the structural barriers that lead to pay inequality amidst multiple systemic barriers. 

Key among them is that the pay gap is largely driven by occupational gender segregation: occupations dominated by men usually pay better than women-dominated fields, even when those jobs require the same level of education and skill. Women make up about half the workforce (47 percent), but about two-thirds of workers in low-wage jobs.  

And even when women enter traditionally male-dominated fields, they tend to go into less socially valued, and thus less well-compensated, subfields. This reflects the historical undervaluing of labor that is traditionally performed by women.  

For instance, while women are about half of all medical school graduates, they are overrepresented in pediatrics (72 percent) and obstetrics and gynecology (83 percent)—lower paying specialties, and areas of medicine focused on women and children that fall within our traditional understanding of “women’s work.” Even within the same occupation, a recent study found that service sector employers with a higher concentration of women employees offer lower wages and fewer hours, further highlighting organization-level devaluation of women’s work. 

Overcoming these structural problems will require systemic solutions. We can’t individually negotiate our way out of gender inequality in the workplace.  

We need pay transparency in job advertisements, public salary data, and to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. Job advertisements should explicitly state the hourly wage or salaried pay band for the position. This saves time for everyone involved in the hiring process. We already have legislative precedence for this. The state of New York recently mandated that all job advertisements and promotions must include salary ranges. Other states and employers should follow suit.  

Employers should also make salary data public. As Lilly Ledbetter showed, pay discrimination is more likely to happen when there is secrecy about earnings. As a 16-year-old, I got my first raise, and subsequent lesson in pay transparency, at my ice cream shop job. My manager told me I was getting a small pay increase—an additional 50 cents an hour—but that I shouldn’t tell any of my co-workers as not everyone was getting a raise.  

Many employers in the public sector are already required to make salary data public. I’ve worked at public universities where you can look up what every faculty and staff member earn. Information is power. Publicizing salary data gives workers important information about what others in the organization are earning, which can help them in their own negotiations. It also incentives employers to ensure that there is pay equity.  

We can also encourage Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to update and strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which will help close the gender pay gap. This legislation would close loopholes and provide remedies for those who have suffered pay discrimination. It prevents employers from retaliating against workers who discuss or disclose their wages and would prohibit employers from relying on salary history to set wages. The Act was passed by the House in 2021 but failed in the Senate. The 118th Congress should pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to close the gender pay gap.  

But most of all, we need a national reckoning about what work, and whose work, is valued. 

Women’s labor has, and continues to be, devalued. Care work, teaching, cleaning, and other jobs that we associate with the domestic sphere are compensated less than jobs associated with the public sphere. This trend dates to the Industrial Revolution, when a gendered division of labor first emerged. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to re-imagine essential jobs. As we consider the future of work, we must account for the critical roles of teachers, nurses, and other professions that have been historically dominated by women. 

Given these structural gender inequalities, women cannot lean our way in to fix pay inequality. Given it was Equal Pay Day this week, let’s focus on the structural solutions needed to solve our systemic gender inequalities in the workplace. 

Brittany N. Dernberger, Ph.D., is a lecturer at George Washington University on the Sociology of Sex and Gender, and an expert with CARE USA.

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