The gender pay gap persists because both men and women refuse to discuss one simple truth, says an economist from the Obama administration

Equal Pay in office women menGetty Images

  • Martha Gimbel is an economic research director at the Indeed Hiring Lab and a former Obama administration economist.
  • She says that the fact that women work low-paying jobs at a higher rate than men contributes to the gender pay gap - but many people don't discuss this trend in fear of blaming women for their life choices.
  • Even when women break into male-dominated fields, men start to leave and overall wages begin to fall.
  • To counter this disparity in job opportunities, all workers must understand the role implicit bias plays in widening gender pay gap.

When Equal Pay Day, the date marking how many extra days the typical woman would have to work to equal what a man earns in a year, rolls around, people often focus on bias at work or family responsibilities - as they should.

But one of the reasons the gender pay gap persists is because people don't acknowledge one of the major underlying issues: the differences in the industries and occupations that women end up in compared to men. Those decisions aren't made in a vacuum, and so we need to reckon with the question: Why are women going into lower-paid roles?

One reason why this conversation is avoided is that it can incorrectly come across as blaming women for their life choices, or even saying that the pay gap doesn't matter because some jobs just pay less. But ignoring the reasons why women end up in some careers and not others holds us back from truly addressing the pay gap. In fact, this discrepancy accounts for about 50 percent of the gap. After all, the occupations that people enter have huge impacts on their career trajectories.

To put it another way, look at the first season of 'Mad Men.' There was a large pay gap in that office. But if you accounted for the fact that women were stuck as secretaries, while men were ad executives, the gender pay gap would be entirely explained.

Martha GimbelMartha Gimbel.Courtesy of Martha Gimbel

So does that mean Peggy shouldn't have been angry about the lack of opportunities for advancement and equal pay in her workplace? Of course not! We're not living in the 1950s anymore, but even in 2019, women still face barriers in the workplace that affect how likely they are to stay there. If women make a mistake on the job, it's more likely to hurt their career, while men may be given a second chance to stay in their roles.

Women also receive (sometimes very overt) signals about how welcome they are in certain professions. For instance, in one prominent economics forum, female economists are more likely to be referred to with words like "hotter," "lesbian," and "feminazi," while male economists are discussed with words like "mathematician," "pricing," and "Wharton." Whether this is the overall intent or not, the message is clear: women are not welcome here. These situations can then send women on a less hostile path, albeit potentially one that pays less.

Even when the barriers are subtle, like an existing lack of women in an office, they send a message. If women in a profession are scarce, it may be hard for other women early in their careers to see opportunities for themselves - and access to female role models plays an important role in future success.

What's more, once enough women do make it into a male-dominated field, men start to leave and then wages often begin to fall. So even after women have broken down barriers to enter a male-dominated profession - such as biology - both gender segregation and its implications for the pay gap can raise their ugly heads again.

Finally, women continue to bear the brunt of family responsibilities, and that impacts what jobs make sense for them and their families. In fact, after having children, women become less likely than men to work in more highly paid occupations, and less likely to become managers. My team at Indeed has found that mothers are more likely than other women to work in occupations like healthcare support and community and social services, and less likely to work in occupations like architecture and engineering, and computer and mathematical occupations, which typically pay more.

So what does this mean for the pay gap? The solutions can't just be about what women should do - we need everyone, not just women, to deal with the barriers that keep women out of high-paying occupations. We need men to consider how their behavior impacts women in the workplace. We need policymakers and company leadership to think about policies that can help women balance family and work. And we need everyone to rethink how their biases may cause them to react differently to men and women in the same job.

Martha Gimbel is an economic research director at the Indeed Hiring Lab, the research arm of the job site Indeed.com.

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