The #1 Reason Why Women Still Make Less than Men (& What You Can Do About It)

Despite first being brought to the public’s attention all the way back in 1869, the issue of the gender pay gap in the U.S. is one that still hasn’t been resolved. This isn’t necessarily for lack of trying, though. In recent years, equal pay has increasingly been in the spotlight, with legislation being introduced to combat it, celebrities taking it on as their passion project, and a national “holiday” being dedicated to it. But unfortunately, as much as we would like one, there is no simple fix for the gender pay gap. A variety of factors, both economic and social, make it challenging — if not impossible — to remedy in one fell swoop.

That’s not to say, however, that there’s nothing you can do about it. We dove into the primary cause of the pay gap, and outlined a few steps you can take to boost your paycheck.

Occupational Sorting: the Key Pay Gap Driver

“The single biggest cause of the gender pay gap is occupation and industry sorting of men and women into jobs that pay differently throughout the economy,” says Glassdoor Chief Economist Dr. Andrew Chamberlain. In other words, the highest-paying positions and industries (such as software engineer and data scientist) are often dominated by men, while lower-paying ones are often female-dominated. This, in total, “explains 54 percent of the overall pay gap — by far the largest factor,” Chamberlain says.

The next question, then, becomes why women are going into lower-paying fields. According to a new Glassdoor study coauthored by Chamberlain and Senior Data Analyst Jyotsna Jayaraman, much of this has to do with the majors that people study in college. “Nine of the 10 highest paying majors we examined are male dominated. By contrast, [six] of the 10 lowest-paying majors are female dominated… placing men in higher-paying career pathways, on average,” the study says.

But even within the same major, there can be a significant pay gap.

“For example, among women who major in Biology, the most common three jobs after college are lab technician, pharmacy technician, and sales associate. By contrast, the three most common jobs for male Biology majors are lab technician, data analyst, and manager. The fact that men are more likely to work as higher-paying data analysts or managers, while women are more likely to work in lower-paying roles as pharmacy technicians and sales associates,” says the study.

The result of this is a gender pay gap that can follow many women for years, or even their entire careers — and that’s not even including additional pay gap drivers like societal norms, implicit bias, the “motherhood penalty,” and more.

So, What Can I Do?

Information like this may make you feel a bit helpless, and while it is disheartening, there’s no need to throw your arms up in defeat. There are a handful of actions you can take to help close the pay gap, such as:

  • Choose Your Major Carefully: If you are in or planning to attend college in the near future, it’s worth researching the highest- and lowest-paying college majors to help inform your decision. That’s not to say that you should only choose from lucrative STEM majors —  as an English and Spanish major myself, I know that those paths aren’t right for everybody — but it should be one more data point that you take into consideration. Look at what the job outlook and expected pay is for your major, and be honest with yourself about how important that is to you.
  • Don’t Sell Yourself Short: As mentioned above, a key cause of pay gaps within the same major is that men tend to enter higher-paying roles than women. Many studies have observed a phenomenon of women not applying to positions unless they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. But many companies are willing to negotiate on which “requirements” are actually necessary. So the next time you encounter a “stretch” position, don’t be afraid to apply for it — you may be more qualified than you think.
  • Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate: Self-advocacy is critical for securing fair pay. Any time you’re starting a new job or feel you deserve a raise/promotion, you should be prepared to negotiate. Get a baseline idea of what you should be making with our Know Your Worth™ salary estimator, then set up a meeting with your manager or HR to get the conversation going. Don’t know what to say? Look to our salary negotiation scripts for inspiration.
  • Know Your Rights: If you think discrimination might be holding you back from your full earning potential or advancing in your career, do some research into what your options are. Discrimination based on sex, race, religion, disability, pregnancy, and certain other traits is forbidden under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and you may have grounds for a lawsuit (or at least a stern talking-to with HR).
  • Level Up Your Skill Set: College is a great place to learn the skills that will serve as the foundation for your career, but it’s not the only place. Online courses, certificate programs, apprenticeships, and similar programs can all help you learn in-demand, highly valuable skills, often at a significantly lower cost than a college degree. If you find yourself drawn to a field you don’t have a degree in, explore the resources that are available to you.

You may not be able to singlehandedly tackle the complex root causes of the pay gap on your own, but you can certainly chip away at the edges little by little. And if enough people join in on that, we may just see widespread change.

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