On Equal Pay Day, a look inside when women earn more

April 9, 2014, 12:22 AM UTC
President Obama signed the new legislation on Tuesday.

Fortune — On Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order forcing federal contractors to be more transparent about what their employees earn and to allow workers to discuss wages. The initiative was in honor of National Equal Pay Day and is aimed at combatting the often-cited statistic that women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn.

It is clear that a wage gap exists between women and men across industries. Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations — even in jobs that are predominantly taken by female workers, according to an April study by the Institute For Women’s Policy Research. Women also comprise a vast majority of the workers in the 10 most common low-wage jobs, but make up just 47% of the overall workforce.

Yet what is equally clear is that change is upon us. Women under 30 have a higher median income than men in nearly every major city in the country, according to Farnoosh Torabi, a personal finance expert and the author of the forthcoming book When She Makes More. Millennial women are aggressively working to close the gender wage gap and earn 93 cents for every dollar their male peers make, according to a 2013 Pew Research study. Also, the number of married couples with top-earning wives is four times greater today than it was in the 1960s.

In an interview with Fortune, Torabi shared her findings from a survey she conducted with more than 1,000 female breadwinners and workers about what it means to be a woman in the American workplace. The financial coach found that changing the discussion about what it means to be a top-earning female will be essential before the gender wage gap can be closed entirely.

Edited excerpts:

Why do you think a gender wage gap still exists in 2014?

Women are still at the forefront of domestic care in this country. As a result, they are more likely to opt out of work. That takes a toll on their earnings potential over time. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of how we view the responsibilities that each gender takes on. We still have gender biases about who is best to take care of the kids as opposed to working. We need to find more equality so we see more men taking time off to take care of their families and more women continuing work if that is what they want to do. We see that while among Millennials there is a narrower gap, the wage gap is bigger when you look at the broader picture when you look at working moms or moms who opt out to be the primary caretaker of their families. Women are still at the forefront of doing that, which has advantages for the family, but comes at a cost in the workplace where women are losing their momentum in terms of earnings.

MORE: Why we should openly discuss salaries at work

Why do you think more American men are not assuming the role of primary caregiver to their children?

Even when we see paternity leave offered to men, we see them not taking advantage of that opportunity because they are worried about their earnings momentum. They are worried about the stigma in coming back later in the workforce and having to go through the uphill battle of getting back into the workplace and regaining their position, title and pay.

On an institutional level, we see these greedy institutions that don’t recognize that there is a gender wage gap. They don’t make efforts to close that gap at work. They don’t realize that domestic care issues are not just women’s issues, they are men’s issues as well. We need to create a support system with child care and paternity leave to allow families to have more balance and to decide who is going to work and who will not.

What are some of the common themes that you see left out of the discussion around equal pay for women?

What we often don’t talk about is making this less about a women’s issue and more about a broad issue that impacts not just women, but families. When we isolate issues as women’s issues or men’s issues, it is not enough and it is not as compelling. We need to remind everybody that when women get paid less, everyone hurts and everyone sacrifices. We don’t have enough support at an institutional level to provide for families and give men paternity leave. That would help women, but also family units — and then everyone is more productive at work. Because we don’t have these policies in place at large, we ultimately shut out potential workers out there that are highly-educated women. Millennial women are getting the college degrees and masters degrees and they are prioritizing their careers. But suddenly, once they enter a stage in their life where they want to have kids while working, they face a really big uphill battle. They suffer, their partner suffers, their kids suffer and the institution suffers because they are missing out on a great group of female employees. We need to position the conversation to include more voices and the parties that we often forget will be compromised by not closing this wage gap.

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When it comes to negotiating for salary, Sallie Krawcheck recently said “men ask and women don’t.” What is your response to that?

I absolutely agree with her. There is the issue of women generally not being as aggressive with wage negotiations as men. Women have been in the workforce less than men so we haven’t necessarily been conditioned to fight for our worth as much as men. There are some baseless insecurities that women have when they want to negotiate pay. It doesn’t mean you have to be aggressive and fight like a man. Women forget that we have a lot of appealing characteristics. We are even-keeled and we are good on negotiating. We need to remind women that they are worth it, they are worth more and to simply ask the question “Can I make more?”

Why do you think women in the Millennial generation are getting closer to closing the gender wage gap entirely?

We are seeing more women achieve degrees at a college level and beyond. More recently, we are seeing that younger male workers have been more adversely affected by the recession. Jobs in industries like manufacturing, construction and finance have been hurt more than other industries. While that is happening, you are seeing jobs in industries like education and nursing grow. Those are the industries that typically are more female dominant. You are seeing women have better advantages at finding employment, but you also see them better positioned for pay. Pew did a study looking at priorities of younger generations and more women are prioritizing their career. We are seeing this really great momentum when women are younger, so we need to support that and grow that momentum. To keep the momentum going, we need to encourage men and women to evaluate the work week and hopefully institutions will create some systems that will make that an easier choice.

What are some problems that female breadwinners commonly face?

Women who make more [than their husbands] express more stress about maintaining their income and keeping up with appearances at work. One woman who is an executive in software told me that although she feels fulfilled in her career, she feels stretched thin because when her male colleagues go home, they are not necessarily on the forefront of all the tasks that she is responsible for [with her children]. A lot of the women I interviewed have a hard time reconciling that because it impacts their ability to get promoted at work. Keeping up with their male colleagues at work who are potentially making more and who are just as much in line for the next promotion … is difficult.

What was one of the most surprising results of your survey of 1,000 female workers?

What was startling to me is that women who have the ability to earn more than their husbands or currently do earn more are more likely to quit working if they think their husbands can support the family as well. I wonder if some women stop working because they see it as a threat to their marriage. Men have said in studies that when women make more or are more successful, their instinct is not to think this is great, they see it as a threat. They question their role in the relationship and their masculinity. We need to address [this reality] and be honest about it.

What is your advice for women who are the primary breadwinners of their families?

Have a tight ship at home – It becomes a combination of women stepping up at work and knowing their worth while also maintaining some sort of order at home with their partners and their children. As much as there is a lot of unpredictability and things happen, to the best of your ability it is important for women to compartmentalize work and home and to create contingency plans. The contingency plan doesn’t always mean that your husband who makes less is expected to pick up the pieces. It is that you as a couple discuss what will be the plan B when the woman needs to stay at work for an extra couple of hours to get her ducks in a row. This is even more critical when you are the female breadwinner. Until institutions respect family responsibilities, women have to keep up with the pace of what work is demanding of them.

Ask for help — It is important not to assume that you have to be at the forefront of all these tasks. Sheryl Sandberg talks about this quite well in Lean In when she says “done is better than perfect.” My book talks a lot about outsourcing and investing your hard-earned dollars not just in childcare, but also in cleaning and cooking. I found in my study that even when women make more, they still do more housework. That has another psychological underpinning because some women still… feel like they need to take on these traditional roles. We need to get over that because it is going to burn [some women] out quickly. We need to come up with some tasks to outsource. It does cost money, but the question is what is your time and sanity worth.