Commentary: Gender gap is everyone's concern

Commentary: Gender gap is everyone's concern

Oct 01, 2007

WORCESTER, MASS. — In 1992, I graduated from veterinary school and began job hunting. I searched through journal ads and mailed out resumes. When I called one clinic to make sure they had received my resume, the clinic owner picked up the phone. What he said astounded me.

"Oh, I won't hire a woman," he told me.

I was too shocked to respond.

Dr. Karen Fine, DVM
"It's not worth it," he continued, "for me to spend my time training someone and then have them go off and get married and have kids and quit."

The experience sparked my lasting interest in gender equity in the workplace. Since then, I have learned that there is a significant wage gap between women and men in almost every profession. This has been demonstrated by numerous studies that compare men and women with similar experience and positions. The wage gap has had an enormous effect on women and their families. Over the course of her lifetime, a woman may earn hundreds of thousands of dollars less than a man.

Common explanations given for the wage gap are that women take time off to have children, and that women "choose" lower-paying jobs for their flexibility so that they can care for their families. Yet study after study corrects for experience and number of hours worked and still shows a gap.

The latest data from 2006, published in JAVMA, surveyed 1,773 new veterinary-school graduates and showed a gap of more than 6 percent (around $3,000). The gap widens over time. In 2005, Veterinary Economics published an article comparing the results of the 2004 AVMA-Pfizer Business Practices Study and the 1999 Brakke Management Study. The results showed male practitioners' incomes have risen faster than women's (69 percent and 33 percent for male practice owners and associates, respectively, vs. 41 percent and 23 percent for female practice owners and associates).

The article states: "Just to be clear, the gap in earnings between men and women can't be explained by differences in work hours or experience."

Many attribute this wage gap mainly to discrimination, while others claim that women are poor negotiators and are content with their earnings, especially if they are in one of the "helping professions." After years of studying the wage gap, I believe that it is a societal issue with an historical basis. Women's work is simply not valued as much as men's work in our culture. After all, men have long been viewed as breadwinners while women played a supporting role for "pocket money" and limited recognition — money being a powerful form of recognition.

Blatant discrimination, such as being locked out of a job due to gender, is now less common, but has been replaced by subtler (and sometimes subconscious) forms of discrimination. Men may be promoted with thoughts of their potential, while women may have to prove themselves first, especially if they have children.

"Social scientists have documented a 'mommy penalty' and a 'daddy bonus' right after a child is born," says economist Evelyn Murphy, author of a book about the wage gap.

Research has shown men to be several times more likely to negotiate their salaries, leading to speculation that the gap could be corrected if women were to negotiate more. However, a new study by Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University shows that women who negotiate are regarded less favorably than men who negotiate — by women as well as men. "Women are penalized more than men for negotiating," concludes Babcock. She believes that women may be reluctant to negotiate because they correctly perceive that there is a cost for doing so.

As the veterinary profession becomes female-dominated, is the wage gap really a concern? Yes, because studies have shown that when a profession changes from predominantly male to predominantly female, wages go down.