Whenever the gender pay gap ends up back in the news, it’s tempting to think of it as a single, if massive, problem. But a growing body of research suggests that this inequality is actually more varied and complex than a clear-cut divide along gender lines. In reality, there seems to be more than one gender pay gap, with some factors like age and industry having a deeper impact on women than others.
New research from PayScale.com—a crowd-sourced salary database—teases out this inequity. The site surveyed over 1.4 million full-time employees between July 2013 and July 2015 in order to analyze income disparities among men and women in the U.S.
Many of these findings echo what we already know to be true: High-paying jobs are dominated by men, women are less likely to negotiate their salaries, and—most notably—women earn far less than men on average (around 78 cents for every dollar, according to the Department of Labor). But the new data also offers insights into where, when, and how women are disenfranchised the most.
The gap narrows when lifestyles and jobs are similar
If we consider data across all jobs and industries, working women earn around 25.6 percent less than men, according to PayScale’s calculations. A male manager or supervisor in the tech industry, for instance, earns around $87,400, while a woman in the same position only earns $68,300, according to this data. But after comparing men and women in similar positions with similar salaries, locations, hours, and so on, PayScale found that this gap is much smaller—around 2.7 percent, or 97 cents on the dollar.
Women are much more likely to work in low-paying industries
Of course, this narrower pay gap does not make wage inequality any less of an issue. The fact remains that relatively few men and women draw comparable salaries, since women are more likely to work in low-paying industries like education, social services, or personal care. According to PayScale’s data, mapped below by state, women hold most of the jobs that pay under $40,000 a year, while men hold the majority of jobs that pay over $60,000 annually.
Family-oriented women suffer most
PayScale also found that the pay gap is especially pronounced for women who prioritize family over work, based on survey responses from both men and women. Female workers were more likely than males to say that work was their priority, and there was a greater penalty for those women who prioritized their home life. According to the report, the only point at which the pay gap becomes nonexistent is when both men and women are single, have no children, and always prioritize work over their home lives.
Women in STEM fields are slightly better off
The gender pay gap also tapers for women in technology—a male-dominated field where relatively few women are represented (the male/female ratio is 70:30, according to Reuters). So while a select group of women may benefit from this work environment, it means very little to the large numbers of working women in historically underpaid professions.
Wages plateau before age 40
Perhaps the most surprising finding is that women's wages seem to plateau once they reach 35-40 years old, while men’s wages don’t plateau for another decade. One contributing factor: Women around this time may be increasingly involved in raising families (the average age of a first-time mother is currently around 26, although many women are now choosing to start their families later). But this plateau in wages is even more significant if we consider that women are less likely to be promoted than men, meaning it takes them longer to reach their career peak. And once they do reach the level of a director or executive, the pay gap becomes even wider.
When we talk about the gender pay gap, then, what we’re really talking about is not so much a finite financial divide, but a pattern of deep-seated gender inequality in the workforce. And this inequality only tends to worsen or plateau as women grow older. Any future policy will have to recognize that gender inequality in the workforce exists on many levels, and that effectively bridging the divide between men and women means addressing every barrier to female success.