At one of my first jobs as a professional chemist, my work wife—the woman I had lunch with a few times a week—asked me to take a walk with her. She had a question; she wasn’t sure what she should do. She was a chemist with a Bachelor of Science and a few years of experience in her field, and she’d just found out that the new male hire she was assigned to train, who had a high school diploma and no experience, was making more than she was.
“How do you know?” I said.
“I asked him,” she replied. “What do you think I should do?”
In the age of “Girl Power,” the gender pay gap is still surprisingly alive and well. Even if you’ve never been put in the position that my friend was in, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the problem of wage disparity because the answer to the question “What do I do?” …is complicated.
Transparency is Key
It can’t be overstated—the best thing that my friend did in this situation was to ask. Transparency is a major tool in affecting the gender gap. In fact, it’s actually against federal law for an employer to discourage their employees from discussing pay. Fortunately, online tools *ahem* like Fairygodboss’ salary database can provide a starting point for salary negotiation or a base for determining whether you should be asking for that raise.
Racial Equality… or Lack Thereof
Most socially savvy women can quote the White House’s research on wage disparity between men and women: the average woman working full-time in the United States in 2014 earned only 79 cents to the dollar made by her male counterpart.
What those same knowledgeable and capable women may not realize is that this oft-quoted value is much more bleak for women of color. Black women earn only 60 cents to the dollar of her white male colleague, while Hispanic women and Latinas make only 55 cents to the dollar.
The Motherhood Penalty
Another major contributor to the wage gap is the “Motherhood Penalty,” a term used to describe the disadvantage that working moms experience when they decide to have kids -- due to gaps in education, missing on-the-job experience, willingness to work more flexible hours (and accepting less compensation in return), and employer bias or discrimination.
Unexpectedly, this effect is only complicated by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees that when you take maternity leave, your job will still be there when you return—but it does not guarantee that your maternity leave will be paid leave. When evaluating a new job offer or potential employer, it’s important to note that some companies now offer paid leave to run concurrently with FMLA, which means that fewer women will have to make the choice between getting paid or taking the proper time to heal after delivery. This also decreases the likelihood that a woman will quit her job (to find one that pays) just after giving birth.
Women Choose to Stop Climbing the Ladder and Other Poor Excuses
Wage gap deniers have go-to talking points as to the reasons behind the “perceived” gender gap, including “women choose lower-paying careers” and “women choose family-friendly careers,” among others.
So, what happens when we remove choice? What happens after we account for age, education, experience, industry, occupation, location, economy, company size, company-specific compensation, and job title? After all of these factors are taken into account, there is still a gap of 7 cents to the dollar, on average, compared to white men.
You may be wondering: what happened to my friend, and what advice did I give her? I told her that even though she loves what she does, she should look for a new job, and when she gets the new offer, she should take it to the Human Resources department to negotiate. This would put her in the position to say that she knows what another company is willing to pay and that she’s ready to walk away if the current employer can’t (or won’t) match.
In the end, she did just that. After explaining to HR that she’d discovered the wage disparity and that she was offered a new position at a different company with a much higher salary, our employer said they wouldn’t match. The good news is that she left, and she’s much happier now that she feels she’s being fairly compensated.
Dr. Amanda G. Riojas is a Scientific Computing Researcher living in Austin, TX. She is also the Advice Section Editor for the Scientista Foundation Advice Blog, Liaison to the Corporation Associates Committee of the American Chemical Society, and Chair of the ACS Central TX Local Section Women Chemists Committee. Amanda basically spends all of her time trying to tell everyone that women are awesome—because she has a daughter now and wants her to know that girls can do anything.
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