“What can we do about the remaining gender pay gap?” asked Francine Blau, Cornell’s Frances Perkins Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and professor of economics, as she opened her talk, “The Gender Pay Gap: Going, Going, But Not Gone,” part of the economics department’s ongoing “Women at Work” lecture series. An acknowledged expert in her field, Blau has been teaching at Cornell since 1994 and holds a master’s and doctorate in economics from Harvard. Her lecture was cosponsored by the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the Athena Center for Leadership Studies.

Though women’s salaries have risen to just over 80 percent of what men receive, she said, statistics compiled from Biblical records of the shekels paid for work performed show that the ratio between what women earned back then versus what men earned “turned out to be 60 percent.” So, yes, she acknowledged, women have been challenged to close that gap.

Blau began her lecture, held in Milbank Hall in September, by exploring factors that have changed work-force gender dynamics, starting from just before World War II. In 1940, she said, “Twenty-eight percent of women had jobs outside the home as opposed to 80 percent of men—a major difference in gender roles.” She explained that at the time, “The participation rate of women in the work force peaked at age 18 through the early 20s, at which point participation fell off steadily as women exited the work force permanently when they married.”

Since World War II, she said, “There’s been a quiet revolution in the major gender roles that women have been playing. By the 1960s, a new group of women had entered the labor force...older women returning to the labor force after having children. And the next 20 years saw bigger changes in the participation age across all age groups.” Still, the male- female wage differential continued. Why? Blau suggested that lack of education and work experience were major causes. Also, “Women have been penalized for not being able to work long hours,” in many cases because of family responsibilities. But, she added, other, somewhat more insidious, psychological factors have persisted as well.

“Negotiation aversion” is one, she suggested, pointing out that “women may be more hesitant than men when negotiating for themselves, but not when negotiating for other than themselves.” She also cited studies showing that women “are more risk-averse than men and tend to shy away from competition.” However, she added, perhaps on the plus side for women, “Recent research points to the growing importance of interpersonal care and communication, areas that seem to favor women versus men. And in studies of sociability and teamwork, women come out higher than men.”

So what explains the persistent wage imbalance? Is it education? Until about 1980, men excelled here. “But women’s educational attainment is now higher than men’s—they’re earning 57 percent of awarded bachelor degrees,” Blau pointed out. Also affecting the men-women pay discrepancy, she explained, “is the fact that men tend to be in higher-paying trade or craft positions, women proportionately in health and education.”

But the job market is changing. Blau cited a decreasing demand for workers in the manufacturing sector, traditionally the stronghold of men, and an increasing demand for women in lifestyle, service, and health industries, particularly those requiring strong interpersonal skills. Also, women have moved out of typically female service jobs and into more traditional male professions, like law and medicine.

Probing further, Blau cited recent studies and experiments, the results of which point to both conscious and unconscious stereotyping. “There is an ongoing prejudice [of] men not wanting to associate with women in the marketplace.” Hard to track, prejudice exists across a broad spectrum of fields and occupations, and has emotional and psychological ramifications.

Blau also pointed out that other research has revealed these factors:

  • Discrimination against mothers persists. Studies show that “mothers with the same qualifications as non-mothers were viewed as less committed and less motivated, and, if hired, it was recommended that they be paid less for their services than non- mothers.”
  • In the 1970s, it was apparent that only about five percent of symphony orchestra members countrywide were women, a situation that was addressed by withholding gender identity from the audition process. “Blind auditions greatly increased the probability that more and more women would be hired in orchestras,” she said.
  • Studies have uncovered “a notable amount of hiring discrimination” in restaurants, even in the recruiting practices of major research universities. To deal with applicants for laboratory management positions in one such facility, key faculty members were asked to evaluate résumés. “And,” said Blau, “the faculty, which included women, opted more for men than women.”


While the gender pay gap has changed little since the 1980s, Blau also opined that “we haven’t done enough to accommodate work and family.” More flexible work arrangements, now popular in Europe, could have a positive effect, she said. Another idea: “We could encourage more dads to take paternal leave—maybe create family leaves only for fathers,” a suggestion that lecture attendees applauded vigorously.

—by Mervyn Kaufman

—Illustration by Satoshi Hashimoto