Leaky Pipelines and Revolving Doors

04/24/2007 01:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A new report from the American Association of University Women confirms what many gender equity scholars have demonstrated for decades: while women are more highly educated than men, they enter different majors in university and different jobs after graduation, there is a gender gap in negotiation, and women face greater burdens when it comes to balancing work and family. The pay gap begins as soon as women leave university and widens over time. A substantial pay gap remains even when comparing men and women who work the same number of hours, have the same work experience and credentials, and have the same marital and parental status.

In the AAUW report, some of this is attributed to women's choices, but it's important that the issue of "choice" not be overblown. Our culture tends to emphasize choice and most people embrace this idea: No one wants to think they don't have choices because it's dis-empowering. But research by Jerry Jacobs has shown that women frequently enter male-dominated university majors and occupations, only to find them inhospitable and end up leaving them in a "revolving door" pattern. It's not only that women choose careers in education or social services instead of science - they are often actively pushed to make those choices and discouraged from entering science, mathematics, or technical fields. The revolving doors continue to rotate women in and out of male-dominated jobs long after graduation. Often this looks like women's "choices" to focus more on their families than their jobs, but the push factors are there. But women (and employers) view this is a personal choice because it's better than feeling like a victim (or a perpetrator).

Also, the report notes that female graduates with the same scientific and technological degrees do not enter the higher-paying jobs in those fields for some of the same reasons. This is what many have described as a "leaky pipeline," in which women obtain jobs in lower proportion than they obtain degrees, and then obtain promotions and salary increases in lower proportion than they obtain entry-level jobs. Why do women "leak" out of high-paying fields over time, or receive lower wages than men in the same fields? Salary inequity and blocked promotions are discouraging, leading women to find other "choices" more appealing.

The gender gap in negotiation is also part of the problem and the AAUW report suggests that women need to become tougher negotiators. The book Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide clearly outlines the research on this: men have more sense of entitlement than women and are more apt to promote themselves, while women seek to preserve relationships by acting in self-sacrificing ways. When women don't ask, the long-term effects of small differences in starting salaries lead to much larger long-term gaps. But when women do ask, they are not treated the same way as men - employers and wage-setters need to take some of the responsibility here. Women who ask do not receive as much as men who ask, especially when those with the power to offer think that women will not leave or will take a low-ball offer more readily than men.

What can we take away from this report and the dynamic metaphors of "leaky pipelines" and "revolving doors"? We need interventions at every stage: encouragement for girls and women to pursue male-dominated fields and high-paying jobs, sanctions against those who discourage the recruitment and retention of women in these fields, standardization of negotiations, and vigilant review of salary and promotional inequities. And we need to re-examine the context in which women, and their employers, make choices.