From the Daily: Bridging the gap

Thursday, October 8, 2015 - 7:38pm

According to the U.S. Census Burea data released last month, women in Michigan make approximately 75 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts; nationally, women make 79 cents for each dollar. Though this statistic is startling on its own, it fails to take into account the additional income discrepancies of African-American and Hispanic women: 64 and 53 cents to the dollar, respectively. Experts predict that if this trend continues, women will not achieve full pay equity until the year 2086. The wage gap stems from a complex cultural problem that won’t be solved overnight, but that doesn’t mean proactive steps can’t be taken today. Michigan legislators need to adopt legislation that will support both mothers and fathers taking time off to care for their children. Simultaneously, parents, educators and other leaders must strongly encourage both sexes, not just males, to explore corporate and STEM fields where interest exists.

In the crossfire of the 2016 election season, the infamous gender wage gap has made its way to the forefront. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, who sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act to address income disparity, and Bernie Sanders, who voted in favor of the act, have been at the helm of this issue from the beginning, forcing their fellow candidates to follow suit. While the debate surges on at the national level, its effects are taking their toll right here at home. Michigan is currently ranked 42nd in the country on the issue of gender-based income equality.

While there is no quick fix for this truly convoluted problem, there are several measures the state can take to prevent the wage gap from becoming an insurmountable gorge. The first of these solutions that should be considered is the FAMILY Act, which would partially compensate workers for up to 12 weeks for an absence due to birth, death or a medical emergency in their immediate family. As of right now, the bill is a low priority, but its passage is guaranteed to significantly benefit women, who are statistically less likely than men to pursue full-time work in favor of managing their household affairs. So far, a few states — including California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have passed this legislation, and the University itself has even implemented a comparable worker compensation policy, yet the state of Michigan has not actively promoted any major regulations that resemble the proposed bill.

According to the 2009 census, despite comprising approximately 48 percent of the workforce, women occupy just 24 percent of jobs in STEM fields — which is unfortunate, because women in STEM earn an average of 33 percent more than women in non-STEM occupations and consequently experience a smaller wage gap. While programs with campaigns to recruit girls and young women into the STEM fields, such as Women in the Sciences and Engineering, have gained traction in recent years, and some colleges and organizations have even offered scholarships that can fund the tuition for female students who pursue STEM majors, cultural barriers that deter women from this occupational sector are undoubtedly still present.

The social norms that govern our behavior have inevitably carried over into the workforce; female scientists, in particular, bear the brunt of this stereotyping, marginalization and discouragement, which could explain why women constitute just 25 percent of computer scientists and a mere 13 percent of engineers. Amending this imbalance requires educators to encourage boys and girls equally from a young age to pursue their passions without fear of ridicule or discrimination, which can be achieved through modification of our statewide approach to STEM education.

The wage gap is the symptom of our own deep-seated prejudices and severely gendered culture. Nearly a century after women began entering the workforce, we still have not learned to regard them as our equals in terms of both capability and talent. Making accommodations for workers with families, as well as supporting women who pursue corporate and STEM positions, is a step in the right direction for a country with a long history of workplace inequality. Now with a handful of presidential candidates shedding light on the issue, perhaps we will not have to wait 71 years for justice that is long overdue.