Tonia Samsonova
November 2016.

Why does the gender pay gap exist?

3 answers

Currently, one of the most well-known theories that explains the gender wage gap is Gary Becker's theory of household specialisation, which argues that women usually specialise in family and child care, making them less competitive in the labour market. As family and child care is usually effort-intensive, women tend to find less demanding jobs which involve more flexible working hours, less travel, and other elements that facilitate a work-life balance. This leads to gender occupational segregation.

Another element of this occupational segregation is the stereotyping of women as primary caretakers and household workers, which leads employers to perceive women as people who will ultimately specialise in family and child care. This perception makes women less competitive as well, since they are less likely to be hired and more likely to earn a lower salary than men, who are perceived as more desirable and dependable workers because that is their "traditional" social role.

Towards the end of last century, the labour participation rate of women increased dramatically, which has also narrowed the gender pay gap. However, this process has slowed down in recent decades. This is partly because of work-life conflicts suffered by employed women, and due to discrimination against women based on stereotyping of women's work.

The gender pay gap is a condition where women receive relatively less pay or wage compared to men while engaged in similar or comparable work. The literature on the gender pay gap has shed light on a number of factors that explain it. Particularly, human capital theory has helped explain how investment in education, work experience, and work-related trainings contribute to the existing gender pay gap. This theory highlights how human capital factors materialize into workforce productivity and into benefits for those that possess them. Today, however, gender differences in human capital rarely explain the persistent gender pay gap. This is because women are increasingly acquiring the necessary human capital to be competitive and productive in the workforce.

In addition to human capital factors, the literature on the gender pay gap explains that gender -based occupational segregation contributes to the pay gap. Gender based occupational segregation is when women are concentrated in certain occupations, particularly those that produce lower economic return. The pay gap induced by occupational segregation persists among women in management positions.

The gender pay gap is also reinforced when socially constructed gender role expectations shape the value society assigns towards skills women bring to the workforce. In this context, regardless of the skill sets women bring to the workforce, they encounter gender based workplace discrimination that partly manifests in women receiving lower wages compared to their male counterparts. Such biases surface during negotiations throughout hiring and promotion processes. Negotiation theory that looks at this process through the gender lens suggests that socially constructed gender roles result in differing behavioral expectations for men and women. This theory notes that when women assertively engage in wage negotiation, it backfires on them, while the same process produces different outcome for men in the workforce. As a result, the negotiating power of women is limited and contributes to the wage gap.

One take on the matter, purported by many social scientists today, is that differences in pay according to gender reflects the patriarchal nature of society, broadly speaking. So work done by women is valued less, even when women are performing the same work as men. This can happen in a system where salaries are negotiated - a man can end up with a higher salary than a woman with the same experience applying for the position because of gender bias.

An extreme example of women's work being valued less is women's housework - housework is a labour-intensive sphere that involves a lot of productivity, but it is not even counted in GDP. Some scholars argue that because housework has been historically ignored in GDP and not counted as "productive labor," other types of "women's work" has also followed this pattern in the market. To describe this process, sociologist Maria Mies coined the term "housewifization" in the 1980s. "Housewifization" is a process by which women are looked upon as housewives in society and are perceived as dependent on husbands for sustenance, regardless of whether they are actually "housewives" or not. This association of women with housewives leads to the devaluation of work women do, and is intrinsically connected with the perception of men as "breadwinners" regardless of their actual contributions to their families.

By a similar token, other sociologists have highlighted that women may be seen to be less reliable workers: with women still largely seen as the primary caretaker (of children, of older family members, and other dependents), entry into and exit from the labour market is more frequent for women which leads organisations to pay women workers less and invest less in women's standing in the organisations.

There is also some literature focusing on psychological factors that drive the wage gap. Some of this literature argues that women display lack of qualities like aggression, which are seen to be key to success in the workplace and they are thus valued less, which translates into a lower pay. Sociologists would argue that social forces have shaped our perceptions of "masculine" behaviour as desirable in workers, and society also has motivated men to act in certain ways to promote this image in order to climb the career ladder. There is an emerging body of studies that shows that women who act in ways we view as traditionally "masculine" can harm their reputations and come off as "abrasive." These studies show that managers judge women more harshlyon the same qualities that are exhibited by men. So the same tactics in the workplace lead men to succeed and women to struggle, which reflects a system that is biased towards men's advancement.

One recent (very controversial) view is that women don't use their erotic capital in the professional space, whereas men use their erotic capital to their advantage. Catherine Hakim, for example, argues that a central feature of patriarchy has been the construction of ‘moral’ ideologies that stop women from exploiting their erotic capital to achieve economic benefits. According to this thesis, the differences in erotic capital use between the two sexes is one of the drivers of the wage gap.