Gender pay gap

The gender pay gap is the average difference between men's and women's earnings. It can be looked at locally, nationally and internationally. There are different ways of measuring the pay gap and different ways of expressing it. For example, the European Union defines the gender pay gap as simply the average difference between men's and women's hourly earnings, while in the United States it is measured as the ratio of women's to men's median yearly earnings among full-time, year-round workers. What is important is that all ways of measuring or expressing the gender pay gap show that in every country men outearn women, leaving women more at risk of poverty for no reason other than their gender.[1]

The gender pay gap is often divided into the ‘unadjusted’ and ‘adjusted’ pay gaps. The ‘unadjusted pay gap’ does not take into account all of the factors that impact on the gap’s existence such as differences in education, number of hours worked, job sector, position etc.[2] When adjusted for these factors, leaving only what is unexplained or is a result of workplace discrimination, the pay gap does diminish considerably. This has led many conservatives and libertarians to denounce the gap as a ‘myth’. However, this is ignores that the origins of the adjusted factors are usually discriminatory in themselves, being the result of society’s expectations of men and women.[3] As one commentator puts it:

‘If high school girls are discouraged from taking the math and science classes that lead to high-paying STEM jobs, shouldn't we in some way count that as a lost equal earnings opportunity?’[4]

However, looking at an adjusted (or normalized) wage gap is inherently intersectionality and is engaging in erasure of the struggles of women who have multiple axes of oppression.

Around the world

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Expressed as the average difference between the hourly earnings of men and women, women earn 16.4% less than men in the European Union. The size of the gap varies considerably by EU state but it still exists in each state. On the whole for the EU, the disparity has narrowed in recent years, but in some countries it has actually widened. It is interesting that the gap exists despite women outperforming men in second and third level education. As elsewhere, the existence of the gap means that women are at greater risk of poverty than men, especially in old age.[2]

In the United States, the ratio of women’s to men’s earnings was 0.81, again based on yearly earnings among full-time, year-round workers. The gap varies between states, with women’s earnings being closer to men’s in more states in the South and the West than in the Northeast and the Midwest.[5] The gap narrowed considerably in the 1980s, but convergence has been slower since then.[6]

Among industrialized nations, South Korea and Japan had the greatest disparity between men and women.[7]

In less developed countries data on this is not recorded or cannot be fully collected due to the informal nature of much of their economies. It is clear however, that Africa and Asia have the greatest gender disparities when it comes to earnings.[8]

Causes of the gender pay gap

The causes of the gender pay gap everywhere are complex and interrelated. What is clear is that the gap exists everywhere as a result of wider gender inequalities across economies and societies. The following lists the most important factors that cause the gender pay gap in the west. It is important to note that a given factor may contribute more to the gap in one area than in another and vice versa.


Despite legislation, sexist discrimination still plays a role in the make-up of the pay gap and is often assumed to form the ‘unadjusted’ part of the disparity.[2] Studies have shown that resumes with male names were more likely to be considered than resumes with female names.[9][10] Discrimination can be blatant, with a woman not getting a job, promotion etc. consciously based on the fact that she is a woman. Perhaps more often, the discrimination is unconscious and based on stereotypes, with women often as guilty as men in this regard. Ilana Yurkiewicz has commented on discrimination in the field of science, saying

If faculty express gender biases, we are not suggesting that these biases are intentional or stem from a conscious desire to impede the progress of women in science. Past studies indicate that people’s behaviour is shaped by implicit or unintended biases, stemming from repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes that portray women as less competent.[9]

There is evidence that managers often give favour men for promotion and employment on the basis that as the man is the breadwinner, it is more important for him to get the promotion or job.[3] General dislike of the idea of women as leaders also still persists.

Discrimination in the workplace may also not result from individual discretion but from existing policies and practices that are not designed to be discriminatory but do result in discrimination.[2]

Evidence from the European Union’s experience suggests that discrimination happens less when mechanisms of recruitment and promotion are automatic and protected by collective bargaining as opposed to be largely left to managerial discretion. This helps to explain why the gap tends to be narrower in the public sector.[3]

Childcare and family responsibilities

Women spend more time than men on domestic and care work. This has a number of effects. For one, women take longer career breaks than men in order to care for young children. This stifles opportunities for career advancement, while men are largely unaffected. In Estonia for instance, for each child a woman’s earnings will fall by 3.6% whereas men’s earnings are not affected.[3]

In addition to taking career breaks in order to care for children, women tend to work shorter hours and are more likely than men to work in part-time employment in order to balance work with family responsibilities.

Other effects of this gender role on perpetuating the pay gap include women not being able to take jobs with hours that are not family friendly or being able to travel for work. Employers are also reluctant to hire or promote women to higher positions based on fear that they will take career breaks or cut their own hours.

Undervaluing of women’s work and skills

There is much evidence that says that jobs considered ‘feminine’ are undervalued. That is that there are jobs that are less well paid compared to others jobs where similar levels of skill or ability are required simply because they reflect ‘female’ characteristics. For example, in supermarkets physical work in the stock room tends to be paid better than cashier work for this reason. Similarly, nurses are less well paid than medical technicians even though the jobs require comparable levels of competence. Where women dominate a sector they receive lower wages than they might have otherwise, while the opposite is true for men.[3][2][11]

Educational and career choices

Societal expectations about the kind of jobs women should go into continue to affect the choices that girls and women make about their education and careers, with expectations being shaped from a very early age. Accustomed to perceiving themselves as more suitable for certain types of jobs, women tend to reiterate traditional education and work choices, which prevent them from seeing other options as feasible.[3] The result is that even women with high educational attainment still go into women dominated sectors, with the result that they go into lower paid jobs for the reason mentioned above. Indeed, pay differences between men and women are greater for highly educated workers compared with low-skilled workers in most countries.[12]

While obviously it is fine for anybody to enter in a lower paid occupation if they wish, it is so vital to recognise that expectations about suitable occupations are formed from a very early age. So it is not a matter of free choices being made outside of a social context as conservatives such as Christina Hoff Sommers seem to suggest.[13]

Closing the gap

Closing the gap is imperative in the interests of fairness and to ensure that women are not at risk of poverty based solely on account of their gender. Numerous studies and publications have also demonstrated that there is a solid economic case for closing the gap.[14][2]

With the great narrowing of the gap that occurred in the 1980s in many places slowing down or worse, it is clear that this situation is not going to end by itself and that action is needed.

The gender pay gap will probably not end entirely without huge cultural shifts. However, individual initiatives can have a difference and be good in themselves regardless of the effect on the pay gap. Recent initiatives in this area include Norway ear-marking one-third of the parental leave period for fathers and companies offering more flexible hours to their staff. However, some attempts at encouraging girls to take an interest in male-dominated sectors have proven less than successful.[15]


  1. Elaine Moore (February 2004). ‘Gender pay gap shows little sign of closing’. The Financial Times. [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 European Commission (2014). ‘Tackling the gender pay gap in the European Union’. [2]
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Eurofound (2010). ‘Addressing the gender pay gap: Government and social partners in action’.
  4. (
  5. ToW [3]
  6. Franchine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn (2007). ‘The Gender Pay Gap. Have Women Gone as Far as They Can?' Academy of Management Perspectives (21), pp. 7 – 23. [4].
  7. Catherine Rampell (2010). ‘The gender wage gap around the world’. The New York Times. [5].
  8. International Trade Union Confederation (2008). ‘The Global Gender Pay Gap’. [6].
  9. 9.0 9.1 Ilana Yurkiewicz (2012). ‘Study shows gender bias in science is real. Here’s why it matters'. Scientific American. [7].
  10. [8]
  11. (
  12. OECD 2013. 'Gender gaps for full-time workers and earning differentials by educational attainment'. [9].
  13. Christina Hoff Sommers 2012. 'Wage gap myth exposed - by feminists. [10].
  14. [11]
  15. The cringe! [12]