The Disturbing Way Women Are Penalized At Work

If you're finishing college soon, you should rest assured that your new degree might make it easier to land a job. However, a new study revealed the burdens college-educated women face in the workforce. The gender wage gap for young workers increases with more education, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Specifically, among high school graduates, women are currently paid 92 cents to a man’s dollar, but that decreases to just 79 cents among college grads. Insane, right?

The unemployment rate fell to 4.9 percent in 2016 — the lowest recorded since 2008. That’s great for our economy, but that number doesn't necessarily mean things are good for young graduates. “There’s so much focus on the overall unemployment rate and how it’s come down that it often misses the details of how that really impacts many people in the economy,” EPI Senior Economist Elise Gould says.

In many ways, women face disproportionate rates of unemployment and lack access to higher-paying jobs. And that’s not because they aren’t seeking employment or pursuing top-level positions. Instead, there are a number of institutional biases that exist against women that have kept them underpaid and out of the labor market for years.

Gould coauthored this report with two EPI research assistants, Tanyell Cooke and Teresa Kroeger. For Cooke, their findings on the weak labor market for young high school and college grads was particularly relevant, since she graduated from high school the year after the 2008 economic crisis hit: “I didn’t have a goal in mind, I just knew that education was going to make me a more marketable candidate in whatever I wanted to do in the long run."

Cooke’s instinct to pursue higher education in 2009 wasn't wrong — she would have been entering a labor market with a 9.4 percent unemployment rate. But although the national unemployment rate has decreased since then, wage inequality between genders has grown immensely. According to the report, among college graduates, men earned 8.1 percent more in 2016 than in 2000, while women earned 6.8 percent less than in 2000.

It is important to note, however, that this study didn’t control for things like college major and what occupations women and men were pursuing over the past year. Even with this limitation, Gould makes it clear that the difference in pay is unacceptable:

Men and women with only a college degree, with about the same amount of experience, they’re making such a different amount of money; it’s striking and obviously I think it’s problematic ... The wage discrepancies are likely driven by men at the top of the wage distribution earning more than ever before and driving up the average male wage.

There are a number of jobs with larger wage gaps; ones that are particularly bad for women who want to earn the same amount as their male coworkers. But that doesn't mean women simply aren't pursuing these careers. Shockingly, though, Gould says even when professions become dominated by women, these fields are still paid less than those dominated by men.

And it’s worse for women with children. The “motherhood penalty” is a term for the way employers view and penalize women who have children. Data shows that mothers are less likely to be hired or to be paid as much as men in the same roles with the same qualifications, and are often viewed as less competent. Conversely, fathers are more likely to be hired than men without children, and they are often paid more after they have children.

This type of institutional bias has unfairly penalized women, especially those with college degrees, simply because they have children. Gould says this penalty can be applied to young college grads, too:

The hours required for some of the highest-paid occupations are incompatible with the historically gendered responsibilities of home life — child rearing or the demands of being the primary child care person at home — which may be less true for these young workers, but it’s certainly not out of the question that you’re talking about people in their early 20s who may be starting to have a family.

Unsurprisingly, it's even worse for minorities. Black college graduates have a 9.4 percent unemployment rate; more than double that of white college graduates (4.7 percent). Valerie Wilson, director of the program on race, ethnicity, and the economy at EPI, says this ratio exists at basically every level of education, so it's not like the disparity goes away as black workers pursue higher education.

Cedric Brown, a 25-year-old African American graduate student at Syracuse University, says he thought continuing school after college would help his chances of getting employed: "I felt like I had to get a master's degree in PR just to improve my chances of getting a job in PR agencies in the first place."

However, Wilson says that education actually does more to reduce occupational segregation by race than it does by gender: "There’s a measurable benefit in terms of occupational segregation in having access to higher paying jobs by race if you have a higher level of education; you see less benefit when you’re looking at occupational segregation by gender.” This means that although the minority unemployment level is off the charts, college-educated minorities have a better chance of breaking into a field than college-educated women.

There a few solutions and policy changes that could ultimately help confront the economic discrepancies women face today. Gould says: "Information and transparency are absolutely key. Also, changing the culture of work to value work-life balance, changing the segregation of genders into specific occupations, this sort of thing would be true for races as well. And things in the legal arena, such as enforcing anti-discrimination laws."

By making workers aware of these institutional biases, they can hold employers accountable for unfair discrepancies, and hopefully make the labor market more fair for women and minorities.