For Women Facing 17% Wage Gap, A not-so-Happy Graduation

graduationIn case you missed my Op-Ed essay in Tuesday’s Austin American-Statesman, here’s a re-run:

After the college graduation ceremonies and celebrations are over, and the photos have been uploaded to Facebook, there comes the inevitable moment of truth. Do I have a job? It’s a tough enough job market for any new grad, but for women the prospects are even more disheartening. New female college grads are earning 17% less than their male counterparts, according to a new report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

A woman graduating with a bachelor’s degree last year earned a median starting salary of $36,451. For a man, it was $44,159.

When you calculate a lifetime of percentage raises and compound interest, that nearly $8,000 difference is staggering.

As demoralizing as the findings of “Gender and College Recruiting” may be for this year’s female grads, its implications for future generations of women in the workplace are downright alarming. NACE’s analysis, which painstakingly isolates a systematic gender effect by taking into account the differential salary levels among majors and then comparing salaries within the same major, gives lie to the conventional wisdom that paycheck parity will somehow materialize for women with the mere passage of time.

It’s common knowledge that women as a group face a substantial wage gap in this country, and that the disparity has stabilized in recent years. As of last year, the median wage of women was 76.5% of the male median compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The question is, has the wage gap turned from common knowledge into an accepted practice?

The wage gap has been largely explained away as the result of two primary factors besides gender.

First, there’s history. It was assumed that much of the gap was due to the long-term compounded disparity caused by historical pay inequities of older women. It was also assumed that, once this generation left the workforce, the gap would narrow, if not disappear.

Second, there are the choices women make. The wage gap was attributed partially to women’s choices to enter low-paying fields. (But why, we then need to ask, are women-dominated fields systematically underpaid?) And it was partially attributed to women’s choices (the “mommy penalty”) to off-ramp from the workplace to address family needs, thus forgoing career and salary advancement.

The NACE report lays to rest these explanatory excuses for good. New college grads have no salary history. And they haven’t off-ramped. The study convincingly demonstrates a systematic gender pay differential by: 1) taking into account the gender and salary differentials between high-paying career-oriented majors such as engineering and business and lesser-paying academically-oriented majors, and 2) comparing men’s and women’s salaries within the same major.

The result? With few exceptions, men out-earn women across the board. What are we left with? The discomfiting reality that the workplace is not a level playing field. Right out of the chute, women are deemed less valuable than men. Seventeen percent less valuable. The wage gap is but another expression of how systematically and asymmetrically our culture insists on regulating gender status. By default, power, privilege, and money still accrue to the man in the room.

Without intervention at all levels, wage discrimination is unlikely to change, and we will render women less able to support their families (including unemployed partners)–or themselves in retirement. We need legislation such as the Paycheck Fairness Act to establish the legal parameters. Employers need to give more than lip service to diversity and inclusion programs.

In a bizarre twist, the NACE report found that, in 2009, when 57% of the new grad hiring base was female, 34% of hires recruited by firms with a diversity effort were women, while 41% of hires recruited by firms without any diversity effort were women.

Parents, educators, and mentors need to alert young women to the workplace discrimination they will face and the career strategies they will need to master. So, in case you’re still in search of the perfect gift for your favorite female grad, I’ll recommend a book. Give her a copy of Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.

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