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News from EPI The gender pay gap can’t be explained by women’s career choices

Critics of the widely-cited statistic that women are paid 79 cents for every dollar men are paid often claim that the gender pay gap is the result of women opting for careers in lower-paid, female-dominated industries. In “Women’s work” and the gender pay gap, Senior Economist Elise Gould and Research Assistant Jessica Schieder argue that women’s pay is determined by a variety of societal factors that both guide women into lower-paying fields and depress their pay regardless of their occupation.

“Leaving aside the fact that women’s career choices are shaped by gender norms and expectations, the fact is that most of the gender wage gap can be explained by the fact that women, on average, are paid less than men in the same occupation,” said Gould.

Gould and Schieder argue that women’s careers are shaped from a young age by discrimination, societal norms, and other forces that guide them into lower-paying occupations. By the time a woman earns her first dollar, the authors argue, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work–family balance. In fact, by the time women arrive at college, they are already less likely to be interested in high-paying fields such as engineering, computer science, and physics than their male counterparts.

“It’s important to realize that women’s career choices do not happen in a vacuum,” said Schieder. “Girls are steered toward gender-normative careers from a young age, and that has a profound impact on their earnings later on.”

Even for women who do go against the grain and pursue careers in high-paying fields, sexism and hostile work environments often drive them away. The long hours required for some of the highest-paid occupations, the authors point out, are incompatible with historically gendered family responsibilities.

Lastly, Gould and Schieder argue the problem isn’t just that women are choosing lower-paying fields, but also that women’s work is undervalued by society. Many professions where pay is set too low by market forces, but which clearly provide enormous social benefits, are female-dominated. Furthermore, when women have entered traditionally male fields, the average pay in that field tends to decline—evidence that women’s work simply isn’t valued as highly as men’s.

“Serious attempts to understand the gender wage gap should avoid blaming women for not working hard enough or picking high-paying careers,” said Gould. “We need to look at how our economy provides unequal opportunities for women at every point of their education, training, and career choices.”

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