The unexpected way to end the gender pay gap

We need to start looking at how we treat young women.

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The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report shared the sobering reality that it will take 100 years to close the gender pay gap around the world, a 17-year increase from the 2016 report.

Even in the freelance economy, women are paid less than men.

What this means is that women are farther than we were from wage equality today than they were just two years ago, and this timeline increases for women of color and other marginal identities.

While most efforts for ending the wage gap are centered on female mentorship and gender diversity efforts, the real reason that women earn less than their male counterparts for the same job begins way before they ever write their first resume.

A study by Common Sense Media found that children begin learning gender stereotypes as early as the age of 2. Before most children are able to speak in full sentences, they’re learning codified stereotypes about how boys and girls should behave through commercials, television programs, and toys.

By the time that these two year olds girls become college graduates, they’ve already been conditioned to expect less.

Dr. Marilyn Davidson found that women leaving business school are less confident than their male peers about their financial worth. While, on average, male graduates believed they deserved an $80,000 a year salary five years after graduation, women only believed that they deserved $64,000.

This gap right out of college has an impact on the salaries women accept in their first career positions, how often they seek a raise or a promotion, and how they stack up financially with their male counterparts over the course of their careers.

So how do we intervene in the wage gap earlier in young women’s lives?

Here are four practical strategies:

Re-define the rules of gender expectations for children.

One of the long-term strategies for closing the wage gap is the redistribution of home labour. When two-parent families contribute equally to child rearing, children grow up with the expectation that both parents should be equally involved in child rearing.

Allowing children to choose toys in a store without the constraint of what is “boy-appropriate” or “girl appropriate” can also help, as it de-emphasizes the idea that some things are only for men while others are only for women. Millennial parents are leading the charge in this quest, both designing and purchasing clothing that’s gender neutral and style agnostic.

Create safe learning environments for all children.

Psychologist Dr. Christia Spears Brown found that 1 in 3 girls have experienced sexual harassment by the sixth grade, and that statistic increases to 90% by the time that young women have finished high school.

Sexual harassment can have long-term and debilitating effects, even with treatment, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD, all of which can impact academic and job performance.

Creating safe classrooms for all students and incorporating curricular material around consent and bodily autonomy can help women thrive academically and have a long-term impact on their mental health, helping them avoid sick days, burnout, and health leave.

Mentorship for young women.

Mentorship allows women to challenge themselves, increase their social capital, and learn from the experiences of someone who has been through a similar scenario in the past.

Mentoring women earlier into their lives, before they enter the workforce, can help encourage them to seek out strong, consistent female mentorship at work.

Encourage boys to become allies early.

Young boys are the most important allies for gender equality; as long as boys are allowed to (and at times, encouraged to) to exhibit patterns of toxic masculinity early in life, both sexes lose.

As these boys grow to be men, they will be expected to conform to rigid views of what it means to be a man and how they “should” treat women.

Encouraging young boys to see their female peers and siblings as equals early in life and discouraging a “boys will be boys” mentality can produce a generation of men that are powerful allies in the quest for wage parity.

The answer to ending the wage gap is a holistic approach; putting diversity and mentorship programs in place at work isn’t enough to combat the years of systemic conditioning that both genders face prior to entering the workforce. Our efforts need to be centered around re-defining gender roles and expectations for future generations as much as helping our current workforce to help more women rise to the top.

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