Young women have flipped the gender wage gap in some places, but not Pittsburgh
While recent research shows that young women in a small number of U.S. cities have closed the gender pay gap, women in Pittsburgh continue to trail their male counterparts.
Women under the age of 30 in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area earned 83% of what their male counterparts made in 2019, according to a Pew Research Center study from last month. Locally, young women’s median annual pay amounted to $32,373, compared to $39,000 for young men.
Among all 250 metropolitan areas included in the Pew analysis, the median earnings for a typical young woman averaged 90% of those for a similar young man. And in 22 places, including New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, women under 30 usually made as much or more than their male counterparts.
University of Pittsburgh economics professor Lise Vesterlund cautioned that Pew’s study is limited because it distinguishes workers only by gender, without addressing pay-related factors such as educational attainment and field of work.
“It's very hard to compare, say, New York City to Pittsburgh if the characteristics of the population in New York differ from those in Pittsburgh,” Vesterlund said. “The gap is going to reflect the characteristics that the population has, so if we're in a metro area where women are more likely to have a college degree, we could very well see among young men and women that women eventually are going to be making more because they have an education that we know will give them higher pay.”
A 2009 study found that, compared to women across the country, women in the Pittsburgh region are more concentrated in lower-paying professions such as health care support and education. Research from 2019 shows, however, that Pittsburgh performed as well as or better than a sample of 89 similar cities when it comes to pay parity for workers of all ages.
Still, the 2019 findings indicate that Pittsburgh workers overall earn relatively low incomes, with white women typically making 86 cents for every dollar that white men earn and Black women usually making 63 cents for every dollar earned by their white male peers.
“But we're known for eds and meds. We have a lot of skilled trades and high tech,” noted Laurie Weingart, an organizational behavior and theory professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “So as you think about drawing in those populations … you do see male-dominated fields. So they may be higher paying, but also they tend to be male-dominated.”
In a forthcoming book, Weingart and Vesterlund explore how the inequitable distribution of labor within workplaces also drives gender-based pay inequities. Carnegie Mellon professors Linda Babcock and Brenda Peyser also co-authored The No Club.
Through their own research and a review of other literature, they show that women are more likely than men to be saddled with “non-promotable” work, such as onboarding new colleagues, taking notes at meetings, participating on committees and serving low-paying clients.
“There are all these tasks within organizations that sort of keep the organization together and keep it moving forward,” Vesterlund said. “But they're all tasks that we don't reward and don't consider when it comes time for promotion, and women are given a lot more of that work.”
Vesterlund said this trend emerges throughout the workforce, regardless of industry or seniority. She and her colleagues have demonstrated the phenomenon in lab experiments and through studies of employers. Their book also cites research that documents the issue in a variety of professions, including food retail, law, engineering, higher education and airport security.
“And part of the load is even coming in organizations that really care about diversity, equity and inclusion,” Vesterlund added, “because the people that they assign to all the efforts that are focused on diversity, equity and inclusion are the underrepresented employees.”
“So along with all the other work that they're already doing,” she said, “they now suddenly have to handle all the [diversity, equity, and inclusion] efforts, which of course is going to take them away from the work that we ultimately value for promotion.”
An easy fix
Such patterns help to explain why the wage imbalance between men and women grows over time, Vesterlund said. In fact, the recent Pew study found that in 2000 a typical woman between 16 and 29 years old earned 88% of a similar young man’s pay. But by 2019, when people in that group were between 35 and 48 years old, women usually made only 80% of what their male counterparts were paid.
“When you look at the accumulation of all [the non-promotable] work that is given to women, they end up not just not getting promoted and not getting the salary increases that they want. But they're spending so much time on work that they really weren't trained for,” Vesterlund said.
“They also end up being less satisfied with their positions, and they feel disillusioned. They … start losing their confidence.”
“And critical to all of this is that women are not doing [non-promotable] work because they inherently are better at it or inherently prefer to do this work,” Vesterlund continued. They “say yes when we ask them because they know that they're expected to say yes. And [they] even … volunteer when asked because they know that there is this collective pressure of all of us expecting them to step up to the task.”
Therefore, Vesterlund said, women can be assigned tasks that they don’t necessarily perform well.
"It really suggests that it is harmful to the organizations [to distribute] work in this way and that it is in their interest to improve the way that they allocate work,” she said. “And indeed, the organizations we've worked with have been, once they've seen how bad the problem is … very eager to make change.”
She said one way employers can address this issue is to assign non-promotable tasks randomly rather than by requesting volunteers or handpicking specific workers.
She noted that childcare and discrimination could also contribute to gender disparities in the workplace. “And we should be working to improve [on those scores] in any shape or form that we can,” she said.
But she added, “What is nice about our focus on non-promotable work is that it is something that is very easy to fix, and it is inexpensive for organizations to try to improve it.”
Vesterlund and her co-authors will discuss the findings in their forthcoming book, The No Club, at a Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture Series program on May 3.