Equal pay for equal work: this principle is set out under the Federal Constitution, but its implementation is lagging behind. Women still earn significantly less than men, even if they hold the same qualifications, have the same length of experience and perform the same tasks. Up until now, it was unknown at what career stage the gender wage gap opens up. Researchers led by the economist Michael Marti of Ecoplan, a research and consultancy company based in Bern, have now established that women are already paid less than men when they start out in their career.
The scientists analysed the data of some 6,000 young adults who had participated since the year 2000 in a long-term study on the transition from school to working life. They compared the entry-level salaries of young women with those of young men. In their analysis, the researchers examined a large variety of factors that could explain differing wages, i.e. schooling and training as well as grades in school-leaving and apprenticeship certificates. In addition, they also considered the skills of the young adults having taken the Pisa test, their profession and background, the size of the company and even the set of values of the young adults and the socio-economic status of their parents.
Lower entry-level salaries for women
After considering all these factors, an unexplained wage gap of 7 per cent or CHF 278 per month resulted between women and men. "This amount would need to be added to women’s starting salary if they were to pull level with men," says Marti. He adds that it is highly unlikely that there are other factors, unaccounted for in the analysis, which might explain the wage gap. "It seems that the wage gap can only be explained by wage discrimination."
Men’s salaries rise faster
The fact that the wage gap is particularly wide in professions with a balanced gender ratio, i.e. where the gender issue does not appear to be a pressing concern, surprised the researchers. These sectors, in particular, seem to lack awareness of wage equality. But women also fare worse in typically female and in typically male jobs. They often assume – either by free choice or assignment – activities and jobs that are less well paid, whilst the opposite is true for young men in professions typically dominated by women: they take on tasks that are better paid. The researchers also note that wage progression follows different trajectories for men and women: men’s salaries rise faster, meaning that the wage gap widens even further in the first few years of employment.
There are many reasons for this wage discrimination, according to the researchers. It cannot be ruled out that young men consciously or unconsciously choose companies where higher salaries are paid, or that they are more assertive when negotiating their pay. Furthermore, the early choice of a profession in the Swiss occupational training system seems to be detrimental to young women; they frequently opt for typically female jobs in the healthcare sector or work as hairdressers or florists, where wage levels are low as a rule. However, the researchers believe that the wage gap in itself is more likely the result of employers discriminating against women, i.e. they promote them to a lesser extent and offer them lower salaries. This discrimination may have to do with the fact that employers consciously or unconsciously assume that women will stay with the company for a shorter period of time because they will have children at some stage and therefore reduce their working hours or leave the company entirely.
Greater wage transparency
What measures could help to rectify the wage inequality observed amongst career starters? Increasing wage transparency and further raising employers’ awareness of wage equality are crucial, says the economist Kathrin Bertschy. But, she adds, the efforts cannot stop there: the course towards wage gaps is crucially set already when choices about occupational training and education are taken; this development is reinforced later when families are started. Women should be guided not so much by traditional roles but by the need for skilled employees when choosing their profession, says Bertschy. Vocational counselling services must improve further in this area. Furthermore, the "risk" of a hiatus from gainful employment is borne unilaterally by women. It is women who take maternity leave and then assume most of the child care and domestic work, one reason also being that their employment pays less by comparison. The researchers therefore believe that some form of parental leave, as exists in Scandinavian countries, could be a way of reducing wage inequalities: if it were introduced, employers would also have to expect their male employees to take a hiatus from gainful employment when they have children.
Dr Michael Marti
Phone +41 31 356 61 61
University of Basel
Institute for Sociology
Phone +41 78 667 68 85