Forget the conventional wisdom that female workers happily choose lower-paying positions in return for flexible work schedules. A new survey of female law-firm partners finds that women in the upper echelons of law firms make an average of 22 percent less than male partners' wages and they're not pleased about it.
"It was very surprising," said Joan Williams, a professor at the Hastings College of the Law in California and the director of the Project for Attorney Retention, which carried out the survey. "I had no idea that women partners were so upset and angry about compensation."
The wage gap between male and female workers is nothing new, nor is it limited to white-collar professionals like lawyers. According to 2008 U.S. Census data, full-time female workers in all industries make 77 cents for every dollar made by male workers. For African American women, the ratio drops to 67.9 percent of men's wages, while Latinas earn 58 percent of men's earnings.
While the wage gap has shrunk since the Equal Pay Act of 1963, 60 percent of the change since the early 1970s is attributed to a fall in men's real earnings, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity. The remaining 40 percent is due to higher wages for women.
Choices or discrimination?
The cause of the pay gap is controversial. Some argue that child-rearing responsibilities cause mothers to choose lower-paying, flexible jobs and to move in and out of the workforce more often than men.
But these factors don't entirely explain the pay disparity. A 2000 paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reported that education, work experience and race explained 33 percent of the gap, while union membership and industry choice explained another 29 percent. At least 12 percent of the gap remained unexplained.
Other studies come up with slightly different numbers depending on the variables used, but none can completely explain away the gap, said Linda Carli, a psychology professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who researches gender and leadership.
"You can control for all you want to control for, and the gaps remain," Carli told BusinessNewsDaily.
Bias on the job
At least some of the gap is likely the result of gender discrimination. Research has found that employers are more likely to hire men than women, even when women are equally qualified. In one 1996 study, researchers sent men and women with matched resumes out to apply for high-end restaurant jobs. They found that women were 40 percent less likely than men to get an interview and 50 percent less likely to get the job.
Another study of orchestra auditions, published in 2000, found that after orchestra directors began to conduct "blind" auditions in which the gender of the performer was unknown, women were 50 percent more likely to advance beyond the preliminary rounds and several times more likely to win a spot in the symphony.
There is evidence for discrimination in compensation, as well. In 2008, researchers from the University of Chicago compared the earnings of transgender people before and after they began presenting as their new gender (often through a combination of hormone therapy and surgery). The researchers found that workers who transitioned from female to male earned 1.5 percent more as men than they had as women. More strikingly, male-to-female employees actually lost 32 percent of their earning power after they began living as women, even though their experience and skill levels remained the same.
The double bind
The roots of discrimination are often subtle, but studies show certain assumptions about women to be "almost cross-cultural," Carli said.
One of these assumptions is that women are less competent than men, she said. Women have to work harder to prove themselves. Unfortunately, they're often stuck in what's called the "double bind," because the confidence and self-promotion required to prove competence are seen as unseemly in women .
The expectation that women should be self-effacing instead of competitive is especially troubling in professions like law, where the compensation system is subjective, the Project for Attorney Retention's Williams said.
"Women often report push-back when they engage in self-promotion, even if that's what the system requires," Williams said. One women in the survey reported that she'd gone to the firm's compensation committee with a list of her accomplishments during evaluation.
She was surprised by the response of one of the committee members. "Well," he said, "you think highly of yourself, don't you?"
The boy's club and the mommy track
Women also face difficulties when it comes to networking and mentorship, thanks to the dearth of women in leadership roles. Often, the "Boys' Club" mentality isn't deliberate, Carli said.
"It's not really the case that men are saying to themselves, 'I don't want to interact with women,'" she said. "People like to interact with others who are very similar to themselves, so it's a natural thing for men to want to interact and network with other men and women with women."
The problem, she said, is that the most powerful networks are male-dominated, so women often miss out on advancement opportunities.
Marriage and children can also cost women more than men, Williams said. Respondents to her survey reported that compensation committees often assume that women need less money because they have husbands to support them. And because women still carry more of the domestic load than men, Carli said, parenthood is more likely to stall a mother's career than a father's.
A "good" father is one who provides for his kids, so "men can actually resolve both the parent and workplace role simultaneously," she said. Women, who are supposed to nurture their children, can't ¾ at least not without calling into question their dedication to both roles.
There are strategies that women can use to work around these obstacles, Williams said [see sidebar/link]. But, she said, institutions must also own up to subtle biases and work to end them.
"There's a certain complacent story we tell ourselves, which is that these huge pay gaps are not a big deal because they reflect only that women have different priorities," Williams said. "It provides a convenient way to ignore these patterns of gender bias and the significant impact they have on professional women's compensation."