Female grads face the realities of gender pay gap

Starting from their initial salaries, female college students will most likely earn less than their male counterparts after graduation.

It’s 2017 and women, on average, still don’t get paid as much as men. That’s more than half a century after Congress enacted the Equal Pay Act in 1963.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, women make about 78 cents on the dollar. Progress has been made towards pay equality, but an underlying reality exists: female college students will most likely graduate into a wage gap.

College-educated women lost nearly $800,000 by age 59 as a result of the gender wage gap.

According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), recent female college graduates working full-time earn just 82 percent of their male peers’ salaries. This statistic — based upon the most recent year (2009) for which longitudinal data are available — presents a seven percent pay gap between men and women that cannot be explained, especially considering controls for hours, occupation, college major and others factors associated with pay.

Three factors play an important role in the wage gap between male and female college graduates: gender bias, occupational differences and willingness to negotiate a starting salary.

Implicit nature of gender bias

Women have made strides in workplace equity in the past century, but as Gender Bias in Academe: An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies reveals, gender bias continues to affect each stage of the hiring and promotion process. Sharon Alestalo, Syracuse University’s program director for WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering), explained that even in employers who value objectivity, equity and inclusion in the hiring process, implicit bias is difficult to recognize because it’s often subconscious.  

When it comes to the actual interview process, Alestalo says that “unless you are a very aware person, you may not even see implicit bias is happening.” In an interview, a man’s assertiveness in explaining professional accomplishments may imply he has more leadership skills, and is thus better suited for the job, compared to a less-assertive woman.

During more objective rounds of the interview process — like sifting through resumes — implicit bias is still prevalent. A 2012 study showed that science faculty from research-intensive universities (who rated identical candidate applications, named either “Jennifer” or “John”) rated John’s application significantly more competent and ‘hireable’ than Jennifer’s. Participants selected the male candidate for a higher starting salary and more career mentoring. According to executive director of SU ADVANCE, Marie Garland, implicit bias promoted an unfair assessment of qualifications, and in turn, influenced the salary that the participants were willing to offer.

Garland helps to build diverse faculty within the university through SU ADVANCE by mobilizing social networks to address inequities and foster inclusion. When recruiters approach the hiring process, Garland said “they come in thinking [a woman] may be less qualified, therefore we would offer her less. It’s not that people have biases about the starting salary specifically, but it’s tightly coupled with the assessment of qualification.”

Competency as it relates to gender plays a role in the subjective analysis of how men and women perform their duties. Vita Hawkes, a Policy Studies and Citizenship and Civil Engagement senior, says she experiences biases towards female lawyers’ capability in the court room.

“Women don’t have the masculinity and the aggression that males do,” Hawkes said. She explained that during mock trials, whenever she raises her voice with a witness, judges tell her she’s being too aggressive.

“They tell me, ‘You have to be very nice and very polite,’’ whereas my male co-council goes up yells at a witness and scores perfectly,” Hawkes explained. “When I raise my voice a little, it’s me crossing a line.”

Also, Alestalo added that recommendation letters can promote gender bias by the way a reference describes a woman’s competence. “Women’s recommendation letters may be full of relational type of information,” Alestalo said. “It may mean the same thing, but said very differently.” Alestalo advises to look for feminine-loaded words, such as descriptions of how the female candidate nurtures people versus her technical skills.

Occupation affects pay

Education has empowered women to close the gender wage gap, especially in male-dominated fields. Despite women outnumbering men in 2016 college enrollment (11.7 million females compared with 8.8 million males), they have not made significant progress in desegregating fields of study.  

Women tend to enroll in ‘softer' fields that pay less. Females who earn degrees in female-dominated majors, like education and social work, will earn less than other women who complete degrees in male-dominated majors, including engineering and business.

In 2013, women earned 57.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees in all fields, and 50.3 percent of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees. This participation, though, was completely lopsided in certain areas. Women received very few degrees in the computer sciences (17.9 percent), engineering (19.3 percent) and physical sciences (39 percent).

According to AAUW, one year after graduation, female social science majors earned only 66 percent of what female engineers made ($31,924 compared to $48,493). Women who break the invisible barrier into what is perceived as a man’s profession can earn more. Even though women have started establishing themselves in traditionally male-dominated fields, they are still paid a fraction of what their male coworkers earn.

Experts aren't sure how to explain the discrepancy. As evaluated in a 2014 report review by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, educational differences explain a portion of a gap, but still cannot explain the seven percent difference between men’s and women’s wages.

Not all industries, though, doom female graduates to wage inequality. Once Megan Minier starts her career as an IT Risk Advisory Consultant at Ernst & Young, the information and management technology senior will receive a salary that's equal to her male peers.

“EY is very dedicated to gender equality and trying to get women involved with mentoring programs,” Minier said. “I know that I’m lucky because if people in the iSchool decide to go to startups or smaller companies — with less regulation and not much at risk for employers to pay unequally — they may not be able to say the same.”

Negotiate your base

Above all else, a recent college graduate’s starting salary is the dependent factor in building wealth. Because women earn less than men — starting with their initial post-grad salary — they end up retiring to a significantly less amount in Social Security and retirement accounts.

Looking at the amount of money women lose because of the wage gap, the results are staggering. College-educated women lost nearly $800,000 by age 59 as a result of the gender wage gap. Statistics based on a 40-year career show that white women are estimated to lose around $565,640 to white men, black women ($840,040), Latina women ($1,043,800), Asian women ($349,320) and Native American women ($934,240).

For women, negotiating a starting salary can help close this unexplained wage gap. Mary Holland (SU's Student Activities’ program coordinator) sees how apprehensive female students are, in terms of owning an equal salary as their male counterparts and overall leadership. Holland tries to empower female students by hosting an annual salary negotiation workshop, where she educates soon-to-be female graduates how to calculate a desired salary and tactics of negotiating.

“One of the reason why [the gender wage gap] exists is because women are oftentimes just happy to get a job and take whatever they can get,” Holland said. “I think women are scared and apprehensive to put themselves in that situation.”

According to Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation — and Positive Strategies for Change by Carnegie Mellon professor Linda Babcock, 55 percent of women are apprehensive about negotiating compared to 39 percent of men. Furthermore, a Levo League survey reports 79 percent of millennials didn’t negotiate their offers in their first jobs out of college.

With studies suggesting recruiters’ implicit biases and shocking discrepancies in pay, it’s easy to feel dissuaded. But negotiating the circumstances around a starting salary, not the number itself, can set up any entry level employer for success.

Alestalo recommends that during negotiations, ask employers to support taking a paid day to attend trade and discipline conferences. “If it’s more of a profession that relies on developing your people skills, there are a lot of one-day workshops that come to the community that talk about assertive communication, sales or any wide variety of supervision,” Alestalo said.

Garland also advises that, as a new hire, find out who your allies are.

“As you feel out for mentors within your organization, found out where they may be in terms of gender equity issues,” Garland said.

For those worried about experiencing backlash for talking about salary in the workplace, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act protects employees who challenge unfair pay. Other resources to benchmark salaries include the Bureau of Labor Statistics (for general industry salaries) and Glassdoor.

Despite the major discrepancies that soon-to-be college graduates will face, Minier believes females should stay optimistic: “You get a bad feeling in your gut from being sheltered on this campus for four years. And we as women, luckily from all these great mentors, have been told you should never settle.”

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