You likely know that the national gender wage gap for women hovers around an average of 77 cents to every dollar men make, and that the gap widens in male-dominated STEM fields.
But there is another equally persistent inequality: Men in traditionally women-dominated fields such as nursing, teaching, and childcare still get paid more.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that focused on pay data from nearly 300,000 registered nurses found that male nurses earn $5,100 more on average than their female counterparts who hold similar positions. The same study found that this wage gap had remained unchanged since 1988.
This study is a stark reminder that we haven’t come close to solving the problem of unequal pay, says Anne Ladky. As executive director of Women Employed, an organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for working women, Ladky has observed the phenomenon that happens when men enter a female-dominated field. Rather than hit the glass ceiling, men in jobs like nursing or teaching appear to glide up to higher pay and management positions on a “glass escalator.”
“The wage gap in these professions is often a consequence of unconscious but persistent bias–that men are simply more capable, that women with children are less committed to their work, and so on,” she explains.
Caren Goldberg, PhD, a faculty member in the psychology department at George Mason University, has also observed the glass escalator effect and its opposite, equally challenging, countereffect.
“The gender wage gap tends to be greatest where there are more than a few token women, but where women are in the clear minority,” Goldberg points out. “After some threshold, female representation becomes a threat,” Goldberg explains, “which is where women tend to be at the greatest disadvantage salary-wise.”
Goldberg calls these two behavioral counterpoints out together because she believes they suggest a similar underlying cause. “Being in the minority draws attention to how well one fits with expectations of the typical incumbent for the job,” she says. The difference is that for men, it results in rewards; for women, in penalties.
Ladky believes employers should make pay parity their first responsibility, using internal pay studies to look at patterns and correct problems. “Women, particularly in management roles, can promote the use of these studies,” she suggests.
Another problem that widens the gap, says Ladky, is that women in professions like nursing often assume that compensation policies are more rigid than they really are, so they don’t ask for more money. “The latest news should encourage them to assume that negotiation is always possible–and necessary,” she argues.
Goldberg notes that there is some research that offers a strategy for negotiating the gender wage gap as a woman in male-dominated professions. “Acknowledging that she doesn’t fit the image of the typical incumbent has been shown to have a favorable effect on women’s interview outcomes,” she says.
Three studies have found, for example, that when an attractive woman acknowledges her looks and gender, she is perceived to have more masculine (read: favorable) traits and is believed to fit in more. “I haven’t seen research on whether this approach helps level the playing field for raises and promotions; however, it seems likely that it would,” says Goldberg.
“The most promising solution would be to have relatively equal representation of men and women in various professions,” Goldberg posits, acknowledging that such a change wouldn’t happen overnight. Efforts such as what Girl Scouts of America and the National Science Foundation are doing to increase female representation in STEM fields have the potential to minimize the gender wage gap considerably for the next generation.
“Likewise, as female-dominated professions such as teaching and nursing become more gender-balanced, both sexes will reap rewards because female-dominated professions tend to have lower salaries than gender-balanced or male-dominated professions,” she says. “Unfortunately, research doesn’t always give us good news, and suggesting to a female nurse that having more male coworkers like the man who is currently outearning her is not a very comforting short-term resolution,” Goldberg concedes. “It is, however, the solution that will most likely yield the greatest results in the long term.”