Tackling Issues Facing Working Women While Promoting Gender Equity

Before the Women’s Marches and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements made headlines and brought issues of women’s rights back to the forefront, Rutgers scholars had been working for decades as ardent advocates through their research, teaching and outreach. Rutgers Today is highlighting many of the women whose work is making a noticeable impact. This article is the latest in our series.

From corporate boardrooms to women’s prisons, Dana Britton has brought an incisive vision to the issues that face working women; even a partial listing of her books, reports, and scholarly articles reveals the breadth of her expertise. But Britton, the author of Gender and Prison (Ashgate Publishing, 2005) and Junctures: Case Studies in Women’s Leadership (Rutgers University Press, 2016), among other published works, has done more than research women’s work; she’s worked assiduously to support it and to promote employment equity.

A professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, she served for six years (from 2012 to 2018) as director of the Center for Women and Work (CWW) at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. For the past 10 years, she’s worked with the National Science Foundation to promote gender equity and organizational change in colleges and universities, and she’s served as a consultant to many universities, helping them to implement those changes.

Britton has a unique vantage point for viewing the strides women have made in the workforce – as well as the obstacles they continue to face.

“It’s worth noting,” she says, “that many more women have moved into traditional ‘men’s jobs,’ like business, than the opposite.” But she adds a significant caveat. “That news may not be as good as it sounds, as we know that when occupations switch from majority male to majority female, wages tend to decline.” And when women move into traditionally male jobs, they experience a considerable wage gap.

“Many more women have moved into traditional ‘men’s jobs,’ like business, than the opposite . . . when occupations switch from majority male to majority female, wages tend to decline.”

In veterinary medicine, which is now dominated by women, men still earn 15 percent more than women. Optometry, another rapidly “feminizing” occupation, has a similar gap. And among physicians and surgeons, women earn only 63 percent of what men do. Britton cites a study showing that, among newly trained physicians in New York State, men made on average $16,819 more per year. And even when men do move into “women’s” jobs, they fare better than their female counterparts: in 2016 female registered nurses made only 90 percent of what male registered nurses did.

Britton notes that there hasn’t been a wage gap in pharmacy, perhaps because pharmacists are “interchangeable” in a way other professional might not be, “a fact that facilitates work/family balance and time out of the labor force,” Britton says. It’s likely easier, for example, for a pharmacist to take several months off than a surgeon or the president of a corporation.

She offers other factors that contribute to the wage gap. “At the C-suite level in corporations,” she says, “personal networks still matter a lot, and women tend to be excluded from these networks.” In addition, harassment and discrimination are contributing factors, at all levels of employment. A bias that favors men still exists, affecting not just pay but hiring and promotions as well.

Britton points to one so-called “audit” study in which scientists were shown application materials for a potential lab manager and asked to rate them for various factors. There were two sets of identical materials, one for a male applicant named John and the other for a female, Jennifer. Overall, John was considered more competent and employable, and the scientists offered him a higher starting salary and said they would be more likely to mentor him.  Jennifer, on the other hand, was rated as more “likeable.”

And when women are hired, the work that they’re often given is less likely to lead to a promotion. “In my own study of university faculty,” says Britton, “I found—as have others—that women wind up doing a disproportionate share of high-demand, low-status service, and hence have less time to do the things that really matter for promotion.”

Britton sees the remedy for many of these inequities in policy solutions “that would help minimize the impact of women’s greater family responsibilities: paid parental leave, paid sick leave, and child care.” In virtually every other developed country in the world, she notes, these policies are written into law. “In the United States,” she says, “we’ve tended to leave these matters to the private sector.” The data clearly shows that, thus far, doing so hasn’t made a sufficient impact. As Britton noted in a 2017 online opinion piece, “the impact of the wage gap on the lives of women and children is tremendous.”

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