Editor’s Note: Scott Torrey is CEO of PayScale, a provider of compensation data and software. He helps organizations achieve their business goals through fair and transparent pay practices. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Tuesday is Equal Pay Day, a day of advocacy intended to raise awareness about how much harder women have to work to earn the same pay as men. Unfortunately, in the wake of the coronavirus, issues like the gender pay gap take a backseat as people focus on their health and livelihood and businesses worry about the economy and whether they can remain solvent in uncertain times.
It’s a challenging time for everyone, and both genders are at risk. Early evidence suggests that men are at increased risk for the coronavirus, possibly because men are more likely to smoke, drink and generally lead less healthy lives. Women, meanwhile, are more likely to feel the brunt of financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.
According to PayScale’s 2020 Gender Pay Gap Report, women currently make 81 cents for every $1 a man makes. This is the “uncontrolled” wage gap, meaning the gap that exists between men and women regardless of position, job level, location and other factors that impact compensation. The “controlled” pay gap is 98 cents, showing that even when work is equal, women are still valued a little less.
Part of the reason for the uncontrolled gender pay gap is that women are more represented in lower-paying jobs compared to men, who comprise a higher percentage of the professional sector. Women are also more represented in occupations with a social or service component. For example, 68% of community and social services workers are women, 70% of educators are women and 77% of personal care and service workers are women.
The coronavirus has hit service workers particularly hard, but the vast majority of the occupations dominated by women are at risk, as most depend on social interaction. With businesses and schools closing to enforce social distancing, women are more likely to face unemployment. In addition, women in these occupations make less than their male counterparts. For example, female elementary school teachers make 92 cents for every $1 a man makes when data are controlled.
When it comes to the critical health care sector, the picture is again bleak for women. Women make up 75% of health care practitioners, 87% of health care support staff and 90% of nurses. Women are on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus, working in hazardous conditions, and yet PayScale’s gender pay gap research shows that women family doctors make 94 cents for every $1 male family doctors earn and female nurses make less than male nurses, 98 cents for every $1, when data are controlled for all compensable factors.
As schools close, women are also more likely to suffer financial hardship due to the need to take time off to care for children. Research shows women who return to the workforce after taking time off to care for a family member — such as having children or caring for a sick relative — receive compensation offers that are 7% less when compared to an employee who applied for the same job while still in the workforce. Women have to wonder if taking time off to care for children and families because of the coronavirus pandemic will also have this effect.
Mothers are already at a disadvantage. Well-documented research on the The Motherhood Penalty shows that women with children make less than women without children while men with children are compensated more.
Although it is understandable that the gender pay gap is not a top concern at this moment in time, it’s still important to recognize the damage that bias against women can do, erasing the gains we’ve made since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements put pay equity in the spotlight.
Naturally, most employers don’t intentionally pay women less, but unconscious bias creeps in. Before the coronavirus, 38% of organizations said they planned to pursue pay equity analysis in 2020. Whether or not that comes to pass in the near term or more distant future, we hope that employers consider the impact recent events have had on women financially, especially women returning after an absence. They should refuse to hire women back “at a bargain” when circumstances are brighter.
Ensuring pay equity for all employees is part of this equation. In uncertain times, employers would be well-served to modernize their compensation practices to price the job, not the person. This is one of the key ways businesses can show they value men and women equally for their contributions. There has been a great deal of positive momentum around closing the gender pay gap — momentum we don’t want to lose, even in these uncertain times.