There are a lot of factors involved in the gap, of course-- an interlocking and reinforcing tangle of structural problems, sexism, and personal choice. It's near impossible to completely tease out the separate issues, but I hope to explore many of them in a series of posts, beginning with this one.
One part of the problem which I've been reading about lately is the difference in starting salaries between men and women-- and specifically, the impact of negotiating salary offers (or failing to do so). There are huge gender differences here. One study looked at a group of newly minted master's degree holders going out into the workforce, and found that 57 percent of men negotiated their starting salary while only 7 percent of women did. Those who negotiated increased their salaries by an average of 7.4 percent, or $4,053. Because future salary growth is so tightly linked to initial salaries, this single initial difference can have tremendous consequences to the tune of $500,000 or more over a lifetime.
Clearly there are personal factors involved in whether you negotiate your salary. But the problem is much broader than blaming each individual person for not having the "courage" to ask for more. This is society-wide; 2.5 times more women than men feel "a great deal of apprehension" about negotiating, and studies consistently show that women expect to be paid less than men for the same jobs.
In my opinion, employers need to have much more consistent salary scales. I am thankful every day that I'm represented by a union-- for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that I'm both afraid of and bad at negotiating over salary. Instead of having to individually haggle over the dollars and cents I should be paid, I just need to make sure I'm in the highest job classification I'm qualified for, based on a clearly spelled out list of requirements and duties, and then I know I'm being fairly paid, just the same as everyone else who is doing the same work. But even in non-union workplaces, there's no reason salary scales can't work similarly, so that everyone with the same qualifications in the same job title-- regardless of gender, regardless of personal skill at negotiating and willingness to do so-- gets paid essentially the same amount.
How do we get there? Besides organizing unions (which I'm always a big fan of) or trying other ways to collectively push management/HR to implement consistent salary scales, another way is simply to try to break down the taboo against talking about salary within the workplace. When unfair salary discrepancies start getting out into the open, that can build pressure to find ways to fairly reward all workers for their skills and performance, rather than rewarding (mostly) men who happen to be willing and able to negotiate well for themselves. (There are also bigger legal/political strategies that I think should be pursued in this same vein.)
What do you think? I would really love to hear people's comments on your salary negotiating experiences (ID yourself by gender, if you wouldn't mind!) and on how your workplaces have addressed salary scales. Do you think the status quo is problematic? Do you think my suggestions are problematic? Do you have other ideas?