There are a lot of questions being debated about the gender pay gap. What causes it? What are its effects on women’s career? When will it end? And, how can women close the gap? For all of the questions, there are no shortage of opinions. I recently streamed a show on Netflix called Explained about this very topic. In the episode, women such as Hillary Clinton arrive at the conclusion to blame the pay gap between men and women on child birth. In an era where companies see value in paid paternity and maternity leave, families hire night nannies to get a good night’s sleep for jobs the following day and women freeze embryos to enhance careers, that old-school explanation just doesn’t seem to add up. In fairness to all involved it’s a layered problem and easy solutions are hard to find. I don’t think anyone understands all sides of the issue and there’s no way to be absolutely certain of its cause and effect.
All of this is happening in a dynamic employment market where, all too often, we credit one labor statistic and do our best to interpret it as a long-term gain. Most recently this occurred during the State of the Union address, when the President tried to appear less offensive to women by saying, “Women filled 58% of the new jobs created in the economy last year.” While the number gives us hope and makes us cheer, it does nothing to address the gender pay gap. But, oh, what an opportune time it would have been to do so.
There will always be misused labor statistics and opinions that apply more to previous generations of workers. However, one thing’s for sure. Everything related to career has a beginning. Just as employment starts when someone’s hired for a job, I believe the gender pay gap educated women experience starts once they leave college. Janet Napolitano, President, University of California School System, agrees. As a qualified opinion leader on the topic, Ms. Napolitano says, “First jobs right out of college are critical to setting the stage for women’s future earning power.” I would add that “doing something” after you graduate college is not starting a career and, contrary to popular opinion, it does not qualify as a first job. In fact, for up to 40% of graduates (according to The Washington Post) who don’t use their college education, the status of being “underemployed” only widens pay gaps and sets women back in their careers.
I am also certain we can do a better job of mitigating the equal pay problem before it starts. Young women can make general decisions on career direction before they decide on a university to attend or a degree to study in college. And, once they’re in school, career outcomes should be part of an educated mindset that’s nurtured, facilitated and acted upon by both faculty and students alike. It’s also not acceptable for Career offices on college campuses to passively service just 10-20% (according to The Atlantic) of the students they educate. With limited resources, career centers should model those self-initiated college students who care enough to use Career Services and have them mentor others. Career development offices, faculty and alumni can do more in the way of outreach to activate larger communities of students, engaging them early and often in careers.
On Equal Pay Day, rather than begin the gender pay gap, let’s start more careers of women. As educators, parents and career advisors, we can do more to help young women start their careers. By doing so, we help close the gender pay gap before it gets started.