Why the Widest Pay Gap Persists in the Best-Paying Fields
Over the past decade, women have been making serious inroads into high-paying professions traditionally dominated by men. As of 2016, more female students have been enrolled in law schools than male. Ditto for medical schools.
With so many women entering lucrative fields, you might think the gender wage gap would be shrinking. But sadly that’s not the case. Not only is it stagnant, but in fact, women in some of the highest-paying professions are losing out the most relative to men.
A recent American Association of University Women (AAUW) analysis of U.S. Census data found that women physicians and surgeons are compensated only 71 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts—a 29% gap, and 9 cents behind the 80 cents on the dollar women are paid overall.
The difference is even more pronounced for financial managers, where there’s a 35% gap. And in the legal field, the average salary for men is $140,270—a full 24% more than the $106,837 women earn.
There’s a familiar litany of explanations for why even high-earning professionals face a big gap: Women tend to gravitate toward lower-paying jobs and specialties within their fields. Female doctors, for instance, are more apt to work in pediatrics than the more lucrative specialty of orthopedic surgery. Additionally, women tend to become moms at the same time when the demands of these professions are the heaviest—and their family responsibilities might hinder them from putting in the grueling hours necessary to become a partner or move into the C-suite.
There’s also evidence that even the most accomplished professional women may not negotiate their salary as aggressively as men do. And that can have a snowball effect on earnings over the long haul, since employers often base people’s pay on their previous compensation.
But the reality is that sexism and discrimination, plain and simple, also play a role in maintaining the stubborn gender wage gap—especially in traditionally male-dominated careers.
Now’s the time to call this out. After all, gender pay equity is not just a women’s issue. With more women assuming the role of primary breadwinners in their families—particularly in professional fields—the gender wage gap hurts everyone: kids, families, communities, and society as a whole. It’s high time for the professional workplace to adapt to accommodate the demands of the new workforce—not continue to operate as if we were still in a Leave It to Beaver episode.
Fortunately, there are hopeful signs on the horizon. The #MeToo national dialogue has focused attention on the importance of treating women with respect—and what better way to show respect than with equal pay? Many business leaders, eager to attract talent from the millennial workforce, realize that employees demand nothing less and expect inclusion and parity. As a result, more firms, including Adobe and Salesforce, are regularly conducting pay audits to identify potential inequities in their compensation—and making the necessary adjustments to achieve pay equality. And some employers understand the need and value of increasing the number of women in their leadership ranks and improving business practices and cultures that support women. Because not only is it values-based, it makes good business sense for the bottom line.
What’s more, we’re seeing pay equity laws move to the next level. During the 2018 legislative sessions, 40 states and Washington, D.C., had active legislation aimed at closing the pay gap. Even more encouragingly, some 20 states and jurisdictions, from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City, now prohibit employers from asking job candidates about their salary history—a practice that has been shown to perpetuate a gender pay gap.
No doubt, we’ve still got a long way to go. But it’s past time for practices to catch up with modern realities, where high-earning professionals get paid what they’re worth no matter their gender. The inroads we’ve been making are getting us on the pathway to close the pay gap once and for all.
Kim Churches is the CEO of the American Association of University Women.