In time for Women's History Month, the White House recently released a report on the status of women in the United States. And while it shows progress on many fronts over the past 50 years, the male-female pay gap contributes to the reality that women are more likely to live in poverty than men.
Report in hand, the Sun-Gazette recently spoke with a trio of local women in higher education about "Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being," the first comprehensive report on women since 1963.
Dr. Susan M. Ross, associate professor of sociology at Lycoming College, noted the importance of viewing the report as a whole and finding the links among the report's topics: people, families and income; education; employment; health; crime and violence.
"They're all pretty interconnected, and much of it has to do with economic factors," she said of the statistics.
Education taking priority
Fewer women are getting married these days, and those who do choose to get married are doing so at a later age. Similarly, women are having fewer children and having their first child at older ages. Ross said women's view of marriage is shifting as priorities shift.
"Women are not as economically bound to having to get married (as they were in the past)," she said. "They can be their own earner."
With more women than ever pursuing higher education, these women are waiting to marry and/or have children until they begin their careers.
"Men and women are equaling out at levels of education, so if more women are completing both their bachelor's degrees and graduate degrees, it's likely that what they'll be doing in the process of that is delaying childbirth," Ross said.
Education shifts slow
to hit 'male' fields
The percentage of women with at least a college degree has tripled since 1968, and women have become more likely than men to earn a high school diploma, college degree and graduate degree. But men are still dominating science-related and technological fields.
"It is true that women are getting more and more education, but if you look at the fields or the disciplines that they go into, there's still sort of a gender gap in what fields women get their degrees in and what fields men do," said Dr. Elizabeth A. Moorhouse, assistant professor of economics at Lycoming College. "Women are still vastly under-represented in engineering, finance and technology."
Ross believes the gender divide begins in childhood with toys. Toys geared toward young girls "have very few mechanical parts or any engineering to them that you would have to do. You pretty much do fantasy play or something along those lines. The toys that are marketed for boys are much more intricately designed," she said.
Ross gave the examples of Legos and erector sets versus dolls and items allowing girls to pretend.
"We set children off on different paths early on, and in the school years we have to overcome some of that," Ross said.
According to the report, women earn about 20 percent of the degrees in the fields of mathematics, physical sciences, engineering and computer sciences. That percentage has declined slightly over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, women earn the majority of degrees in health and education.
That trend holds true locally, although Pennsylvania College of Technology President Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour said the shifts will take time.
"Our ratio is currently 63.5-percent males to 36.5-percent females," she said. "That ratio has shifted slightly with more females, but very slightly over the past few years."
While many of those female students may be pursuing careers in nursing and other health-related fields, Gilmour said women are becoming more welcome in traditionally male-dominated areas of work.
"The gender barrier is clearly shifting," she said. "We have had women in virtually all fields aviation, collision repair, plastics. It is more common to see women in these fields; women are welcomed by their peers and, in particular, by industry."
Pay gap persists
Women are out-pacing men in education, but men are still earning more money than their female counterparts. According to the report, women earned about 75 percent as much as their male counterparts at all levels of education.
The difference in choice of career field can have a huge impact on the salaries earned by men and women. Women are three times as likely to work in administrative support jobs than men. Almost one-fifth of all women work in one of five occupations: secretaries, registered nurses, elementary school teachers, cashiers and nursing aids.
Moorhouse pointed out even within the same field, men and women tend to gravitate toward specific areas. For example, medicine.
"Even within that highly specialized field, women tend to specialize in pediatrics and family care ... and men tend to specialize in surgery and other fields that tend to be higher paying," Moorhouse said.
Ross said even men and women who enter the workforce after high school tend to enter different areas of specialization, and blue-collar jobs pay more than "pink-collar" jobs. For example, Ross said, truck drivers make much more money than secretaries.
Other factors are at play as well.
"Studies have shown that women are less vocal in negotiating starting salaries," Moorhouse said. "They tend to take whatever starting salary is offered them, whereas men are more likely to negotiate a starting salary. That's important, because if you look at salary increases, it tends to be based on a percentage of your starting salary."
In addition, because women still shoulder the burden of childcare in many American families, work often gets put on the back burner.
"Women are still much more likely than men to take off from work for child-rearing," Ross said. "That's going to interrupt careers in terms of advancement and pay ... and it can interrupt trajectories of promotions and so forth."
Poverty affecting more women than men
The report also found that women are more likely than men to be in poverty. Single-mother households are more common than single-father households, and female-headed families have the lowest earned income of all family types. Moorhouse said gender roles play a part in that discrepancy.
"Some of the most important factors (depend on) who bears childcare responsibilities when a couple splits up and it's usually the woman," she said. "They're stuck with trying to care for these children and work full-time, which can always be a struggle."
Because women are expected to bear the brunt of responsibility in births out of wedlock, single mothers can become trapped in a cycle of poverty.
"With the increased births out of wedlock, that's contributed to female-headed households being more likely to be living under the poverty level than male-headed households," Moorhouse said. Also, single women with kids tend to be, on average, younger and have less education than married women. They just have fewer labor skills and education to get good jobs in the first place."
Race changes things
Statistics in the report on women clearly show that black and Hispanic women are reaching equality more slowly than white women. Black and Hispanic women are more likely than white women to live in poverty and receive less money in comparison with men in the same occupations. The pay gap for black women is 71 percent, and for Hispanic women, it's 62 percent. Meanwhile, the pay gap for white women is 82 percent; for Asian women, 95 percent.
Ross said one of the causes of poverty for these women is lack of education.
"White women are much more likely to have higher levels of education than black and Hispanic women ... So the types of jobs available tend to be lower paying as well," she said.
Another factor at play is the racial composition of U.S. communities.
"We have housing segregation, especially in the cities," she said.
Black and Hispanic women are having more children and starting families at younger ages than white women. Female-headed households are more common in black families; 43 percent of black women live in female-headed households, compared to 14 percent of white women and 25 percent of Hispanic women. Ross said black women are less likely to marry while living in poverty than white women.
"Black women in particular are more likely to hold off on marriage, even if they've had a child with someone, because marriage is seen as ... a goal that you look toward. You want to get yourself into a position in which you can afford marriage."
Moorhouse said the United States should look to countries in western Europe for guidance in policies affecting women.
"In terms of our public policy, the United States is way behind some other advanced economies," she said.
She also believes that the greater society needs to encourage young women to pursue degrees in "those types of fields that are typically male-dominated and well paid."
Gilmour, who is Penn College's first female president, believes that women who are determined to succeed will do so.
"My personal belief is that success is grounded in hard work, tenacity, skills and abilities. For me, those are the key measures, and gender is irrelevant," she said.
Gilmour said one of the best ways to get more women working in traditionally "male" fields is through leading by example. Women need positive role models in male-dominated fields.
"When young people see successful people in career fields, it becomes 'cool,'" she said. "Many young people today decide on careers based upon peer influence, media and results."
Women leaders across the United States should keep this in mind as the White House Council on Women and Girls looks to the future. Council Chair Valerie Jarrett said, "(This) report not only serves as a look back on American women's lives, but serves as a guidepost to help us move forward."