Want to close the gender wage gap? Enact paid family leave, experts say

Wage gap persists despite gains made for younger women

FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 file photo, Nurse Anne-Catherine Charlier, center, talks to colleagues during a dinner break in the intensive care ward for COVID-19 patients at the CHR Citadelle hospital in Liege, Belgium. The European Union executive announced Thursday, March 4, 2021 that it wants to force employers to be much more open about how much money staff makes to make it easier for women to challenge wage imbalances and further closer the gender pay gap. The EU made it clear that women workers had been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, many having to add more home tasks to their work schedule because of closure of schools and day care centers. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File) (Francisco Seco, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.All rjghts reserved)

ORLANDO, Fla. – A gender pay gap exists between men and women in America, but among younger women, a new study finds that gap narrows, at least for a time.

The latest report from the Pew Research Center found the gender gap is narrower among younger workers nationally, and in 22 of 250 U.S. metro areas, women under 30 are earning the same or more than their male counterparts.

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Pew said in Florida, the median wages for women under 30 are 90% to 99% of median wages for men in the metro Orlando area, and the Brevard County metro area.

In the Gainesville area, the median wage for women under 30 is actually 100% or above what men make.

Pew’s research is based on an analysis of Census Bureau data.

The findings, however, are also consistent with what labor researchers have said for years — the most persistent obstacle to wage growth over time remains family.

That’s why human resource professionals have argued the best way to close the wage gap between women and men is to allow for paid family leave and greater workday flexibility.

“Historically (for women) it’s been all or nothing, you either are working or you’re stepping back to raise children,” said Martha Bryson, the president-elect of HR Florida, an organization representing 16,000 human resource professionals around the state.

“If females have stepped out of the workforce for two years, three years, they are going to be behind,” Bryson said. “So even if a pay structure can be gender-neutral, it can still be detrimental to women based on that.”

The unexplained discrepancy

The gender wage gap cuts across all industries, with some worse than others. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its look at weekly earnings in the fourth financial quarter of 2021, said there is a 20-cent on the dollar wage gap between women and men. That gets worse when you start looking at different ethnicities.

Only Asian women, for instance, on average, earn more than white men.

In Florida, the top occupation with the biggest wage gap is in the legal field. Census data shows a 52.8% gap in pay between men and women in legal occupations in Florida. Wages in sales positions have the next biggest gap at 56.5%. Jobs for health care practitioners also have a big wage gap of 65.1%.

Nationally, the financial industry also has a large gap in wages between men and women. Women make at least 60% of what men make across the board.

“When you control for all the different variables, education, major, hours worked per week, full time, part time, you know, leave for family reasons, all of that, there’s still about a 10% on average of unexplained discrepancy,” said Dr. Anne Bubriski with the women’s and gender studies program at the University of Central Florida. “And so, most social science researchers account that for some sort of gender discrimination, if you’re looking at women of color, gender racial discrimination.”

Bubriski pointed to a labor system philosophy that she said has always benefited men, particularly white men, over women.

“(In the financial industry) you sacrifice everything for that job,” Bubriski said. “Very little, you know, paid family leave, a stigma against that, both men and women. But we know historically and continually women tend to take more of that type of leave from their job. There’s already that preconceived notion that even if a woman doesn’t want to have children, she will eventually leave her job. The mommy track is what they call it.”

That belief that women are the ones who become the primary caregivers is what holds women back across the board, Bubriski said.

Statistics during the pandemic bear that out. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women had higher unemployment numbers and took longer to return to work during the first year of the pandemic. Women disproportionally make up jobs in the industries that were hit hardest, like the hospitality industry and the retail industry, but also in schools and day care centers. The closure of schools and day care centers provided a double whammy because it also meant there was no place to care for children during the workday.

Men, meanwhile, are less likely to be the caregiver in a family. If there’s an expectation in society that women take on that role, there is also still a stigma in workplace culture if men want to be the caregiver.

“I’m sure surveys you can probably look up, especially more recent, (show) that men are starting to say they want to take more time off,” Bubriski said. “But there’s that stigma in the culture of men, if they want to have more of a life-work balance, it’s more stigmatized. And so they feel reluctant to do that.”

The family leave stigma

That stigma leaves many men afraid to take any family leave offered. A parental leave survey of 1,000 respondents by Deloitte found that one in three male respondents were less likely to take advantage of workplace leave benefits because they felt their position would be in jeopardy.

Also, 54% of respondents felt coworkers would be more likely to judge a man than a woman for taking the same amount of parental leave.

Only around 23% of U.S. workers had access to paid family leave in 2021, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

However — even though the concept is something that Americans widely support, and it has already been implemented in most industrialized nations around the world — a national paid family leave policy has failed to get past Congress, despite President Joe Biden’s attempt to include it in his Build Back Better plan.

The U.S. does have an unpaid family leave policy, but it can be a burden when you’re trying to make ends meet. Then there’s the explosion in the cost of childcare, which can run over $1,000 a month.

Both Bubriski and Martha Bryson agree that more companies need to embrace paid leave and also flexible work schedules to make it easier for women and men to raise families.

“I think over the past two years the pandemic has shown us that the traditional 40-hour week structure where you are at your desk is not going to work. Flexibility, hybrid models, it’s coming,” Bryson said.

Bryson, however, believes companies need to take more of the lead on this, not the government.

“If it is done by the business level, there is ownership,” Bryson said. “If it is from the government, it is forced, it’s a mandate and there is always going to be resistance to it.”

That means workers are going to need to do better in pushing companies toward paid family leave and choosing jobs that offer the benefits they need. Bryson said the pandemic and the Great Resignation are showing companies that if they want to retain good employees, or even get them through the door, they need to adapt to changing attitudes.

“Individual employees can allow themselves to be vulnerable. What do they need? If they are a strong employee, a good performer, they can get assistance, that flexibility,” Bryson said.

“Everyone has to be your own advocate,” she added.

Find your ally

In the meantime, Bryson said the best thing women can do to keep themselves ahead of the game is to continue to advocate for themselves: keep bullet points of what their achievements are, network with others in their industry, know what their coworkers and others in their community are making in comparison.

Wage surveys for communities and industries can be found on the internet at places like the Bureau of Labor Statistics or job sites like GlassDoor.

“Any time you are getting a new role or advocating for an increase, you need to have the facts. What are others, in your community, whether it’s your business, town or industry, what are they making, and if you are advocating for yourself what are you bringing that is unique,” Bryson said.

For women who have taken time off work to raise a family and are getting back in the game, assess what unique qualities you have that can set you apart from other candidates for a job.

Bryson also suggests working with a coach to help you find those unique qualities. Look for local professional groups to help you find those allies.

“Some people also need a sponsor, which is different than a mentor,” Bryson said. “A sponsor is there to help you get to the next level. So who is your ally?”

Bubriski, meanwhile, said businesses need to make sure hiring managers check their biases.

“Everyone has biases, it just makes you aware,” Bubriski said. ”So when you’re at the table, or where you’re interviewing someone, maybe you think that ‘OK wait, am I, you know, projecting something that I’m not intending to?”

Bubriski cites Google and Netflix as good companies to model in terms of trying to end the work-life balance stigma and be more gender-neutral.

About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.