Career Choices and the Lifetime Earnings Gap for Women


11 May,2015

We hear a lot about the earnings gap for women. The research indicates that women still make less than men. Some measures say that women working full-time earn 77 cents for every dollar that men working full-time earn. However, but other calculations, such as those completed by the Pew Research Center, women earn 84 percent of what men do. However, the Pew Research Center also says that young women actually make 93 percent of what their male counterparts do.

No matter the measure you use, the earnings gap for women is narrowing. However, when you look at lifetime earningsĀ and consider the financial risk that still affects women in retirement, it’s clear that there are still some issues that warrant discussion.

One of the realities that we need to consider is the way that career choices often impact the lifetime earnings gap for women.

Society Still Expects Women to Be Caregivers

When you think of stay at home parents, your first thought is likely to jump to a mother. Many of us assume that if a partner in a relationship is going to stay at home with children, it’s going to be a woman. While many relationship norms are changing over time, the reality is that society still expects most households to be made up of a woman and a man plus their children.

Caregiving often falls to women even when there aren’t children involved. Women are more likely to care for aging parents and infirm relatives. In traditional gender roles, women are assumed to be more nurturing, and therefore more “fit” for caregiving.

This caregiving role often means that women give up their jobs and put their careers on hold. When this happens, it can affect how much a woman earns over her lifetime, as well as how much she is able to set aside in a retirement account.

When children are involved, there is a strong likelihood that women are giving up their careers just when they are at a good time to get started. In some cases, women end up giving up their careers just as they are getting established. They might have received a raise or two, or been promoted. Just as this increased earning power kicks in, they might walk away in order to perform caregiving duties.

Many women decide they want to return to the workforce later, but this decision can be complicated by the fact that they have been out of the loop for so many years. It’s difficult to get back into things if you haven’t kept up with your connections, or if your knowledge and skills are outdated. A woman returning to the workforce after years of caregiving may not command the same high salary, and may have to start work near the bottom rung of the later.

The time out of the workforce means lower earning power over time, and that impacts the overall pay gap.

Women More Likely to Work Part-Time and in Lower Paying Jobs

Even when women do work, there is a good chance that they are choosing lower paying jobs.

Traditionally female careers like teaching and nursing pay less than traditionally male dominated job choices like engineer and doctor. A woman teacher might get paid as much as a man teacher, and a female engineer might get paid as much as her male counterpart. However, the data indicates that there are a higher number of women teachers and a lower number of women engineers. This reality contributes to the lifetime earnings gap between women and men.

On top of that, women are more likely to work part-time than men are. Because, traditionally, men are seen as primary breadwinners, they are often the household participants that work full-time.

Part of the reason for these career choices goes back to the expected gender roles in society. Perhaps a woman doesn’t want to quit work altogether, but she still wants to “be there” for her children or for some other individuals who need care. Low paying jobs like teacher have a little more flexibility. A woman who decides to pursue a career as a primary or secondary teacher knows that she will be out of school when her kids are. She will have the same holiday and summer breaks, and will have the weekends off.

The same reasoning is often applied to part-time career choices. Being able to have the flexibility to work fewer days a week, or choose hours that allow for caregiving duties, can appeal to women who want to make sure that they can care for others.

The lifetime earnings gap between women and men is likely to continue as long as the jobs women choose pay less than the career paths men choose, and for as long as women prefer part-time work to full-time work in greater numbers than men.

Women Don’t Negotiate as They Should

There are some indications that women leave at least $500,000 in lifetime earnings on the table just because they don’t negotiate higher salaries. This is a problem that can start at the first job. In many careers, future pay is based on the pay you received at your first job. Your next raise, bonus, or position’s compensation is based on what you have right now. Because many women don’t negotiate a salary as high as a man’s at first, this means that they are behind from the get-go, and they aren’t likely to catch up over time.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that we are discouraged from asking others what they are making. Salary negotiations are often kept hush-hush. When Sony executives’ emails were hacked recently, and some actresses saw that they had no idea that their male counterparts were being paid more, they leapt into action. Charlize Theron negotiated a $10 million raise, and others became more aware of what they should be asking for.

This same issue applies in corporate settings. Women may not have an idea of what they should be asking for, and may not ask for as much as their male counterparts. This leads to lower pay that follows them around for the rest of their working lives.

Of course, one of the reasons that some women don’t negotiate higher pay goes back to societal expectations of gender. From a young age, women are encouraged to be nurturers, and to worry more about the group than themselves. On an individual level, this makes it difficult for women to feel good about asking for more money. In fact, many women hide their dissatisfaction with what they are paid, and say that their pay is fine — even when it isn’t.

However, even if women get over the reluctance to ask for higher pay, there still might be problems with salary negotiations. Research indicates that women who as for raises, or negotiate their pay, can see negative impacts to their careers. When women try to negotiate salary, they are seen as pushy and overbearing. In some cases, women who ask for higher pay are marginalized. They might be given fewer projects to work on, or they might be labeled as someone who isn’t a team player.

Because society has a specific image of what a woman “should” be, it’s difficult to approve when she steps out of that mold. Research indicates that women are penalized for negotiating salary more than men are. So, even when women decide to ask for more, they might still end up getting the short end of the stick. Only changes perceptions and expectations for women can change this situation in the workplace.

Lifetime Earnings Gap: A Complex Matter

It’s clear that the lifetime earnings gap for women isn’t straightforward. There isn’t one solution that will solve the problem. The causes of the gap are complex, and many. And it’s not always a case of straight discrimination, either. In many ways, the lifetime earnings gap for women is also a product of more ingrained social biases that are harder to identify and deal with.

Women can work toward closing the lifetime earnings gap in their own lives, though. Some of the things that can be done include:

  • Don’t give up a career to become a caregiver. Work with your partner to figure out the best way for both of you to meet your career goals.
  • If you do take a break from work, try to keep in touch with old contacts and keep up with skills and knowledge. Consider starting a business, or doing some consulting on the side to keep your skills and your network up to date.
  • Negotiate a higher salary if you can. This can be a disappointingly tricky for women, since how a woman asks matters.
  • Even if you don’t have a job, open an IRA in your name and have your working spouse contribute to it.

In the end, you need to find ways to take your lifetime earnings into your own hands so that you don’t fall victim to the gap.