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Mind the Gap

Jiab Wasserman  |  December 13, 2018

BACK IN 2002, I was part of a three-person financial analysis team at a major mortgage lender. I was better qualified than my two male colleagues, thanks to my master’s degree and greater years of experience. Imagine my surprise, then, when I compared my performance review with one of my colleagues. I discovered that, while we both received the same rating, he got a year-end bonus and I didn’t.

Like many women, I was aware of the gender pay gap, but thought of it as an abstract idea. The bonus revelation was like a slap in the face.

My manager and I discussed my salary in general, agreeing that I should be paid more, given my education and experience. But agreement isn’t action. Nothing was done. I felt trapped. Back then, I was a single mother and the family’s sole breadwinner. If I made an issue of my compensation, would I be seen as a troublemaker and would there be repercussions? Would I be better off starting over at another company—and would the situation be better elsewhere?

I felt powerless, forced to wait for my compensation to be adjusted. It never happened. After a year and a half, I decided to look for another job and was fortunate to find an opening in a different department.

Chances are, if you are a woman reading this, you’ve faced similar situations where you’ve felt discounted and yet trapped. It’s also likely that, as with me, it wasn’t a onetime event, but a scenario that repeated itself throughout your career.

When you’re a woman, you automatically inherit social and financial disadvantages in our “equal” society. No matter how you slice and dice the data, the gender pay gap is real and persistent. In 2017 in the U.S., a woman, on average, earned 80% of a white male’s income.

The gap is so institutionalized that salaries adjust depending on whether an occupation is seen as a “male job” or a “female job.” Researchers reviewing data from 1950 to 2000 found that when occupations change from male-dominated to female-dominated, average pay drops, even for the men. But when men enter an occupation, pay increases, even for women in that occupation.

The gender pay gap exists across all demographics, in every age group, in all states, in high- and low-paying occupations, and for those with and without advanced degrees. It exists in nearly every line of work, including female-dominated professions like teaching and nursing. The gap is even greater for many women of color: Latina women earn 53% of a comparable white male’s earnings. Asian women fare better, but are still at just 85%.

Women start off with this disadvantage as soon as they enter the workforce, and it grows exponentially throughout their careers. The compounding effect of the pay gap makes it harder for women to get out of poverty. It also makes it harder to pay off student loans.

Women experience the negative effects of the pay gap from their very first paycheck to their very last Social Security check. They often need a bigger retirement nest egg, thanks to their longer life expectancy. Yet the career wage gap makes it harder for women to save as much as men do.

Result? Women retire with two-thirds of the money men have, and receive less from Social Security and pensions. White men over 65 have average annual income from Social Security, pension and other sources of $44,000, while white and black women over 65 get by on $23,000 and $21,000, respectively, and Latinas on $15,000. The upshot: Women are 80% more likely to be impoverished in retirement.

Jiab Wasserman recently retired at age 53 from her job as a financial analyst at a large bank. She and her husband, a retired high school teacher, currently live in Granada, Spain, and blog about financial and other aspects of retirement—as well as about relocating to another country—at YourThirdLife.com. Her previous blogs for HumbleDollar were Taking Their MoneyWhy Wait and Won in Translation.

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