The state of the gender gap: Painting a fuller picture of what’s challenging women in the workforce

Seventy-nine cents to the dollar. You’ve probably heard that statistic on the gender pay gap, a longtime wedge issue and soapbox topic for politicians, feminists and celebrities.

Some say the gap — a simple Census Bureau ratio of the difference in median earnings — is a myth, or at least misleading. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker emphasizes the significant effect of life choices tied to gender, and the fact that the gap narrows going from median to weekly wages, or that women on average have less work experience than men and favor flexible hours over higher pay. So, while public figures and pundits on both sides of the issue make definitive pronouncements about what’s true, economic experts continue to examine questions of gender circumstance as well as gender bias.

Dissecting the disparity

Compared with the 79-cent national figure, Nevada looks progressive. With women making about 85 cents for every dollar earned by men, the state is among those with the narrowest gaps (alongside New York, Maryland and Hawaii), according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Joint Economic Committee.

But across the states, the gap can widen dramatically when it’s broken down by age. Among workers ages 18 to 24, it stands at about 2 percent, whereas it’s around 11 percent for those 55 to 64. Workforce analytics firm Visier released data last year on 165,000 U.S.-based employees from 31 companies, finding that as they aged, women became more underrepresented in managerial ranks. “Since managers earn two times the wages of nonmanagers, the manager divide directly drives the gender wage gap,” a Fortune report contended.

It’s an easy leap from there to the recent Bureau of Labor Statistics finding that the difference between weekly earnings for full-time working men and women is largest in the professional field, at $366. But the disparity is pervasive. In 2015, salary database PayScale dropped the bomb that, based on data from more than a million full-time employees, “there is no industry where women earn equal to or more than men overall.”

Those in which the gap was smaller ranged from personal care (1.4 percent) to cleaning (1.6) to architecture and engineering (1.7), with construction (5.2), maintenance and repair (7.6) and the combined fields of farming, fishing and forestry (9.4) on the other end of the spectrum.

Numbers from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation align with the wage gap at its widest among professionals and utility workers, though women do earn more than their male counterparts in wholesale trade.

Is it gender bias?

On Jan. 29, 2016, then-President Barack Obama spoke about the pay gap in honor of Equal Pay Day:

“Today, women account for almost half of the workforce. But the typical woman who works full time still earns 79 cents for every dollar that the typical man does. The gap is even wider for women of color. The typical black working woman makes only 60 cents. The typical Latino woman makes only 55 cents for every dollar a white man earns. And that’s not right. We’re talking about oftentimes folks doing the same job and being paid differently. And it means that women are not getting the fair shot that we believe every single American deserves.”

That’s the popular rhetoric, supported pretty robustly just by social norms and constraints. But the statistics cited by Obama and so many other advocates of equal pay have yet to confirm that flat-out discrimination is the root.

“I don’t think that it’s easy to point to bias,” said Claudia Goldin, Harvard’s Henry Lee Professor of Economics and a leading voice of the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research. She has been studying the wage gap for many years, and her 2014 publication, “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter,” asserts that equality in the labor market doesn’t need to come from government intervention or some revolution driving men into domestic servitude. Instead, she suggests that foundational changes must be made to the way jobs are structured and compensated.

“The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours,” reads the study’s abstract. “Such change has taken off in various sectors, such as technology, science and health, but is less apparent in the corporate, financial and legal worlds.”

A well-known 2009 study by the Department of Labor backs up Goldin’s theory. It concluded that women tended to choose occupations that allowed them to take time off for maternity leave and child care, even if it meant accepting a smaller salary. These included nursing, teaching and retail. By contrast, men were compelled to become scientists, executives and engineers, positions that demand rigid structure but also command much higher wages.

At UNLV, males studying engineering outnumber females by 129 percent, while female students in the college of education outpace males by 119 percent.

Rama Venkat, dean of UNLV’s College of Engineering, believes these career decisions often are made before students reach college, because they have been molded to fit traditional gender roles.

Venkat said parents and teachers tended to encourage girls and boys to play with toys geared toward their genders, a practice that makes for a “Barbie doll culture.”

“We create the bias at home and school,” Venkat said. “I don’t see the difference in skills for girls and boys. It’s just societal bias.”

Goldin, though, sees more in the frame. Putting women in higher-paying occupations would eliminate only 15 percent of the pay gap, she said, pointing again to the practice many companies have of rewarding those who work longer hours. In many fields, if employees work double the time, they make more than double the pay (Goldin notes that pharmacy jobs are among the few exceptions).

In 2015, women accounted for 64 percent of the part-time labor force and only 43 percent of the full-time pool. Wages aside, those part-time hours often mean fewer benefits or none at all, making the gap even wider.

Bright spots

Whatever the drivers, the gender pay gap clearly exists. But there have been significant improvements over the past few decades. In 1960, for example, women made about 61 cents for every dollar men made.

Today, there also are industries in which the gap is almost nonexistent. Women earn about the same salary as men in business consulting and personal credit institutions, according to Forbes.

Furthermore, in certain occupations, more managers are women than men. That includes medical and health services, human resources, community service and education administration, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Las Vegas, one of the most significant improvements is the rise of female entrepreneurs. From 2002 to 2012, the number of women-owned businesses rose by 101 percent, making Las Vegas the fourth-fastest growing city for female business owners, according to a report by the National Women’s Business Council.

Debbie Roxarzade, owner of local restaurant chain Rachel’s Kitchen and mother of two, said she owes her success in both arenas partly to her supportive husband.

“I look at it as being very fortunate to grow a business and have a family,” Roxarzade said.

She is very fortunate, if you ask Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of a landmark 2010 TED Talk and the spinoff book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” She writes that 43 percent of “highly qualified women with children” leave their careers, with only 40 percent of them ever returning full-time.

Some companies are responding with policies friendly to working moms, like telecommuting or flex-time (Zappos is a local example of a large-scale employer offering alternative schedule options), but the market has a long way to go to correct the imbalance.

Are we there yet?

Despite her own inferences about how to close the gap, Goldin said it possibly would never happen. She points to biological differences leading to distinct patterns of behavior that shape our working lives.

“If we started society all over again,” she mused, “maybe we’d be more egalitarian.”

Venkat thinks parents can help shake the societal bias simply by purchasing toys for their daughters that are more gender-neutral, such as puzzles. He added that pattern changes needed to occur before children reach seventh grade, because from that point it would become much harder for them to grasp difficult concepts in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines.

While the statistics remain fuzzy, it’s worth looking to the past century of the female American. From women’s suffrage to the recent Women’s March on Washington, the gender group has long been mobilized, and it’s a safe bet that it will continue the gap-closing trend.