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The gender wage gap starts in childhood

Women earn less because they veer away from science towards professions that pay less
Orthodox girls at school (illustrative photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Orthodox girls at school (illustrative photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

A few weeks ago, my 3-year-old daughter told me that when she grows up, she wants to be a mom. When I asked her what a mom does, she said, “She goes to work, flies on airplanes, and plays with her kids.” She then said that her brother, my 5-and-a-half-year-old son, could be a dad when he grows up, and pick up the kids from school and go to work. I had just come back from a business trip, so perhaps she was exaggerating how much moms fly on planes, but all in all, I was quite happy with what I heard. My daughter described the equality in parenting that my husband and I have been striving for and struggling to achieve since we became parents almost six years ago.

There is a lot of talk about the gender gap in wages, and equality in parenting is likely an important step toward achieving greater equality in wages. A recent Taub Center study by Hadas Fuchs found that of the 39% wage gap between women and men, 57% of the gap can be attributed to differences in work hours between men and women. This relates both to the fact that women are twice as likely as men to work part-time, and that even those women who work full-time work far fewer hours than men. In 2015, men employed in full-time jobs in Israel were working an average of 47 hours a week, compared to women’s 43. We are probably working too much – among the dads, especially, I think we will probably find many men who would rather partake in their children’s lives than work around the clock, even though this is what is very commonly expected of them. Mothers of young children are working at much higher rates than ever before, something that may be borne of necessity as much as choice. But as it currently stands, it is clear that mothers are the prime employees of the second shift, the default parent who has to be ready to pick up the kids from school most days and miss meetings at the last minute to pick up a sick kid. I think many of us do this with great pleasure, but we pay a price.

In Israel, of all those receiving degrees in higher education in 2015, women comprised the clear majority of those receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees (60% and 61% respectively), and women represented about half of those receiving PhDs. The issue then isn’t how much women study – but what it is that we study. Among working-age women, about 14% of the wage gap can be attributed to the specific occupation chosen by women, and looking at 29-31 year-old women in 2008, for whom the Taub Center had even more detailed data, over a third of the gap can be attributed just to the occupation chosen.

One could say that women are making the choice to opt out of the careers that are more lucrative and that also require more hours because of considerations associated with work/life and work/family balance, but we have to recognize that these decisions are actually being made much earlier than the point at which women begin making career sacrifices for the sake of their children.

Among those studying for bachelor’s degrees, around 80% of those studying paramedical professions (i.e., nursing, physical therapy, etc.) or education are women, while only 29% of those studying math, statistics or computer science and 27% of those studying engineering and architecture are women. If we dial back to high school, the story is similar. Just over 30% of students completing a bagrut matriculation exam in computer science are girls, while the rates of girls in theater, literature and applied arts hover around 80%. Whether the reasons are associated with preferences or socialization, the numbers are staggering. It is hard to believe that the choice of major area of study is purely based on coincidence – instead, it’s clear that girls are much less likely to choose those majors that will prepare them for an occupation in which they have a chance of earning as much as their male counterparts.

There are certainly questions we can ask about why professions that are more “feminine” are paid at lower rates than those that are more typically “masculine.” But making major changes in the way the economy rewards different professions is likely a greater uphill battle than trying to encourage our girls to be engaged in math and sciences as much as boys. There is a body of research that highlights the finding that girls actually consistently do better than boys in school, across countries and age groups. And yet, there is a widespread perception, often among girls themselves, that girls are just not good at math and science.

I can speak from my own experience. While I had a feeling I was good at math as a young child, I gradually began to shy away from math in middle school, convinced that other kids were much better than me and preferring to remain quiet rather than speaking up and offering the wrong answer. By the time I was in college, a women’s college at that, I gave up on a dream of being a doctor because I was convinced I was just not good at math and science. Fast-forward to graduate school, when I gave myself a second chance to excel in mathematics, and suddenly realized that I actually was good at math. It was a surprising, yet late, revelation. Though I am very happy with where my life has taken me, how unfortunate to have spent years thinking I was not fit to pursue a particular dream.

While it is not the cure-all for equal pay, if we want to make strides forward in achieving equality in wages, we have to start early, encouraging our girls to be confident in their ability to learn and to be as engaged in math and sciences as they are in the humanities. Everyone is free to make the choice of which career to pursue, but let’s not limit those choices so early on. On International Women’s Day, let’s commit to giving our sons and daughters alike the support they need to pursue their dreams.

Suzie Patt Benvenisti is the Managing Director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.

About the Author
Suzanne Patt Benvenisti is the director general at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.
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