Understanding the Gender Wage Gap

I was always a good student growing up. In high school, I took all honors courses and graduated in the top 10% of my class. When I started researching colleges and imagining my career path, I had two main directions in mind. I either wanted to be an elementary school teacher of an interior designer. Today, I wonder – why did I never dream of going to law school or medical school? Why didn’t I consider being an engineer or a chemist? Some of my classmates with similar grades and abilities had much more ambitious goals. For some reason, these ideas never even came into my mind as possibilities.  This realization got me thinking about my childhood influences. My mother’s primary role was being a wife and mother, and the same was true for most of the women I knew. Of all the female role models I had growing up, very few of them had full-time careers and none were the primary bread-winners for their families. Even though my parents were always supportive of me and never questioned my interests, I couldn’t help but form some conceptions about women’s role in society.

Today, women are more involved in the professional world than ever before, but there is still a long way to go. Women represent only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs and there is a wage gap that is noticeable immediately upon graduation.  Women in the United States earn 82 cents for every dollar a man makes on average. I believe that part of this earnings disparity is caused by women’s own underestimation of their abilities. There are probably many women who simply never thought of going to medical school because they were unknowingly trying to fulfill a traditionally female role. By growing up in a male dominated world, women do not need to be explicitly told that they are inferior to start believing it.  When young girls learn about our nation’s history, it is impossible to ignore the absense of women in the story. The female experience has been a footnote in our history, a special interest group on the margins of society. So, how can young women grow up believing that they are equally capable when history tells a different story? How can a young girl dream of becoming president without a single example? I believe that we need to change our mindset about ambition and gender roles to narrow the wage gap in the future.

Other than women underestimating their own abilities, there must be some discrimination occurring because this wage gap exists even for highly educated women.  According to Business Week, female MBA graduates earn an average of $4,600 dollars less than their male counterparts in their first position, and this gap widens as their careers progress.  These women are intelligent and ambitious, so what causes them to immediately start making less?  There must be some inherent sexism that is persisting among employers. Taking this into consideration, it is important for women to stop underestimating their own abilities because there are other factors working against them.

Unfortunately, women who are ambitious and focused on their careers are not always rewarded.  Harvard Business School conducted an interesting study about the relationship between success and likeability for women.  This study found that success and likeability are negatively correlated for women and positively correlated for men.  Basically, women are perceived as less likable as they become more successful.  For some reason, people are still turned off by the idea of a tough, successful woman.  In men, the traits of intelligence, ambition, and assertiveness are valued and do not hurt their likeability.  These same traits, that are essential for moving up the corporate ladder, are perceived negatively in women. So, women are faced with the choice between being successful and being well-liked, which can be a difficult decision.  The only way that we can begin to shift this paradigm is by changing our conceptions of gender roles.  In order for every young girl to live up to their full potential, they need to believe that they are capable of being successful and that they will not be disliked for that.  We need to recognize the ways that we underestimate our abilities and change our own behavior to fit into society’s expectations if we hope to reverse this trend.  If we can change our thought process, we can expand the definition of what’s possible for women in the future.

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