09/23/2010 05:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Unscientific, but Remarkable Explanation of the Wage Gender Gap

Women in the workplace from Baby Boomers to Generation Y,
a think tank of respected opinions, a five-state search for truth

When we hear the wage gap -- 77 cents to the dollar -- we all gasp, suck in the air, and respond with some quick opinions. We all have a unique take on the salary issue from "Men just want to keep women down," to the common response, "It's just the way it is."

Many of us don't know how this figure was derived. This 77.9 cent/dollar figure was calculated by the U.S. Census using the American Community Survey Report from 2008. This data considers all employees working 36 hours per week or more year-round. It is raw data. It's not adjusted for working parents who take time off for school breaks, family obligations, etc. It doesn't include statistics about how many hours a week in overtime the person works or what type of profession, hard or soft sciences. It leaves a lot to individual interpretation.

Twenty years ago, I thought being in the human resources field meant I could explain the gap. In 1990, it was 71.6 cents/dollar, not much different from where we are today. Of course, I evaluated salaries based upon a sum of education and experience related to the job. Because many women did not possess the breadth of experience of their male counterparts at that time, the wage disparity made sense. Yes, I thought, it will take many years to remedy the gap but it will correct itself. But now I know there is much more to this issue than the raw data at hand. Being on the quest for the answer, I looked to my smart, experienced family, colleagues, and friends to get answers. My informal "think tank" included women of all generations and a couple of wise men.

My question to them was simply, "Why does this salary gap exist?"

One incredibly talented young professional, Kelly, had an intuitive response that spans the generations. Our current economic strife creates an additional hurdle for those of us trying to secure well-paying jobs. "It seems that women in the workforce are in a catch 22. We are not happy with the salaries we receive, however we are not in a position to turn them down."

This may fuel the ''settling'' and ''accepting'' epidemic plaguing women's careers; we can't shop for the highest bidder. Are women hired at lesser salaries because employers can get away with it in this economy?

"I will accept whatever they offer me to get my foot in the door."

Some in my think tank thought that if a woman stops her career to raise children, attend to an aging parent, and other such events, her return to the active workforce has a negative effect on her salary. It's always been that way, right? Men are the providers, and women are the nurturers. When a need arises, you can count on the women of the family to "do the right thing" and take care of the problem. In fact, women experience absences covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act at the rate of 16 percent higher than men. And of course, since the women make less money in many cases, they will be the ones to take the time off so the family doesn't take as much of a "hit" in wages.

"You don't need a raise; you have a husband."

Do women want to work the demanding and long working hours to get ahead? Many women tend to gravitate to the "softer" professions, social work, nursing, teaching, human resources where earning potential is not as substantial as litigators or surgeons. I recall one talented administrative assistant who would be next in line for a promotion. When I suggested that she take a couple of accounting classes to get ready for the next level, she said, "I don't want to. I am where I want to be and don't pressure me about that promotion." She did not possess the drive to get ahead in the workplace; her priorities were different.

"I can't give you the promotion because you're too good at what you do."

What about appearance? Oh yes, beauty matters for women at work. A polished and attractive woman who is not overweight yields a job offer with a better salary. One study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 2007 revealed that attractive people earn five percent more and obese women earn 17 percent less than their slimmer colleagues.

Women of the workplace, I conclude that we become resolved to our own opinions and choices. Of course, there is a dose of traditional values, some discriminatory practices, some personal preferences, our natural preponderance to care giving and nurturing. They all exist in the business world. They just don't apply to all of us, at the same time, and in the same way.

I see young girls wearing glittery shirts that say, "Girl Power" and, "I'm a princess, just get used to it," and I'm hopeful that the next generation of young women will speak their piece.

What do you do if you have a discrimination claim concerning your salary? Visit: You will find a process to file a claim and possible remedies including mediation.

Keep your eye on the Bureau of Labor Statistics for salary trends. The Department of Labor publishes the median usual weekly earnings by occupation and sex.

Special thanks:
Dr. Gail Ali, Florida; Kelly Jansen, Illinois; Rachel Kapur, New York; Bridget O'Connor, Florida; Marsha Grimm, Florida; Judie Steele, Michigan; Suzanne Mueller, Michigan; Lynne LeFebvre, Michigan; Suzanne Kaplan, Michigan; Sherry Pedigo, Florida; Lora Bruder, Michigan; Tammy Grimm, Florida; Diane Savko, Pennsylvania; Terry Powell, Florida; Ryan Powell, Florida; Barry Grimm, Florida; George Savko, Pennsylvania