Price of the “gender trap”? Childhood foundations of the wage gap

—Emily W. Kane

Last month, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) released its most recent study of the gender wage gap, “Graduating to a Pay Gap.” According to the data compiled by the AAUW, just one year out of college, women who were working full time earned, on average, only 82% of what their male counterparts earned. Media attention has focused on AAUW’s finding that, even after accounting for the impact of different college majors, occupations and industries, about one third of the wage gap remains unexplained.

The gap that remains after accounting for college majors and occupations is an important one, but it shouldn’t distract us from the even greater proportion of the gender wage gap that is explained by what social scientists call “occupational gender segregation,” or the tendency for men and women to pursue different courses of study in college and different occupations regardless of their level of formal education. Nor should it distract us from the financial price women pay for their lower overall hours in the labor force, which are often driven by domestic responsibilities. As I argue in my recent book The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls, some of the first foundations for all of this are laid down in early childhood.

Drawing on interviews I conducted with mothers and fathers of preschoolers from a wide range of backgrounds, my analysis reveals how parents can unwittingly contribute to reproducing occupational gender segregation, the wage gap, and women’s responsibilities for domestic labor. From toys and activities that encourage nurturance in girls and technical problem-solving in boys to the differential way they frame the importance of juggling work and family for sons and daughters, even parents anxious to open new opportunities for their daughters often reinforce patterns that are likely to trap them instead. One mother, for example, reported that she had discouraged her four-year old son’s expressed interest in growing up to be a daycare worker “because he could never support a family doing that.”

Another parent, this one a father, noted that he hopes his five-year old daughter has the option to pursue a high-powered career “in the boardroom”, but also hopes she could say “I am a woman and I want to stay home with my kids.” These kinds of comments were echoed often throughout my study, and were rarely combined with parallel comments about a girl’s potential responsibility for supporting children financially or a boy’s option to stay at home with kids. In small moments like these, parents reinforced occupational segregation, assumptions about men’s responsibilities for earning a “family wage” (and thus about women’s financial dependence on men), and routine acceptance of the double standard of low pay associated with traditionally female occupations like child care, social work and primary education.

As I outline in much greater detail in the book, all of those factors combine to reinforce gender traps that most parents hoped to avoid. But I also argue that with greater recognition of the constraints faced by both men and women as they struggle to support families, and greater awareness of the childhood lessons both girls and boys need to learn to be prepared for those future constraints, parents, educators and all of us interested in a better world for our children can sidestep some of the gender traps that contribute to the pay gap the AAUW report points out, a pay gap that only increases in the years after college graduation, and that is all the more complicated for women without college degrees and women who face other intersecting wage disparities by race or citizenship status.

Emily W. Kane is Professor of Sociology at Bates College, and author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls (NYU Press, August 2012).

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