SALT LAKE CITY — Women’s wages are growing faster than men’s, the result of women increasingly filling high-skill occupations that prize social and fundamental skills.

This growth has also led to a narrowing of the gender pay gap, from 33 cents on the dollar in 1980 to 15 cents in 2018, according to a recent study from Pew Research Center.

“There’s still a big difference between ‘women’s wages are growing faster than men’s’ and ‘women’s wages are equalling men’s,’” said Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

After accounting for education, part-time work, industry, occupation, union membership and age, the gap still remains 12 cents on the dollar — due to factors that are “difficult, if not impossible to measure,” said Richard Fry, a senior researcher at Pew. 

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As reported on extensively by the Deseret News, the wage gap is also influenced by family caregiving responsibilities, gender stereotypes, occupational segregation and discrimination — things which help explain why a gap remains, “even amid real progress in occupational representation and wage growth,” said Fry.

“That real wage increase might not be as steep as desired, but it is not trivial.” — Richard Fry, a senior researcher at Pew

So what will it take to close the wage gap, and what role do social skills play in that process?

Women leading out

In the Pew report, researchers looked at 35 different skills across five categories: social, fundamental, analytical, managerial and mechanical.

Since 1980, employment in jobs where social skills are most important has increased 111% — and by 2018, women comprised 52% of those employees.

Pew Research Center

Women are increasingly stepping into these high-skilled jobs because they’re the ones going to college, the very place fundamental skills like critical thinking, problem solving and communication are taught and practiced, says Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project and a professor of leadership and ethics at Utah Valley University.

In 2018, 40% of employed women 16 and over had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 35% of men, according to the Pew report.

Going to college allows women (and men) to find jobs beyond low-skill, lower-paid options like food preparation and serving occupations — where since 1980, women’s employment has dropped from 67% to 56%, according to Pew’s report.

“Women really are making gains, and it is not simply a reflection that men are lagging,” said Fry. In 1980, women, on average, made $15 an hour. Today it’s $22.

“That real wage increase might not be as steep as desired,” Fry continued, “but it is not trivial.”

It’s also interesting to note that while women seem to be trying to climb up the needed social skills ladder, many men aren’t.

Among jobs where social skills were deemed “least important,” men’s employment increased 30% since 1980, while women’s employment decreased 15%.

It’s hard to say exactly why this is happening.

After all, while “social, fundamental, analytical and managerial skills reinforce and complement each other, pushing wages higher or lower in tandem ... mechanical skills and nonmechanical skills move in opposition,” according to the report.

Why social skills?

So why are social skills having such a moment? 

It’s not because they’re new; in fact, companies have been clamoring for those skills for years, says Dale Cyphert, an associate professor of management at the University of Northern Iowa.

Companies are increasingly moving from a top-down hierarchical approach to team-based structures, and as a result, individual evaluations are increasingly based on social skills, or how well someone works in a team, says Cyphert.

Another reason soft skills may be in the spotlight is because they’re so hard to find in today’s potential employees, says Bruce Tulgan, a management consultant and author of “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap.” 

Tulgan said hiring managers often mention the gap between what skills potential employees think they have, versus what they actually show up with.

Sure, someone might have the technical know-how to manage the current software program, he says, but will they cheerfully embrace the chance to learn a new system?

Memorizing the call center script is a technical skill, but does a potential hire have the nontechnical skills to handle an irate customer?

“People get hired because of their technical skills,” Tulgan says. “But people get fired because of their lack of nontechnical skills.”

And these soft, nontechnical skills never become obsolete — unlike many mechanical skills that are either being changed or replaced by automation and globalization.

Over the past nearly 40 years, while wages have grown 24% in jobs where social skills are most important, wages in jobs least in need of such skills were either stagnant or barely changed, according to the Pew report.

Gender in the workforce

Another reason the wage gap lingers is that many of our skill sets have become gendered — meaning young boys may face criticism for showing empathy or being emotionally expressive, while young girls may get teased for showing interest in engineering or construction, says Mason.

When jobs become gendered, it’s leads to occupational segregation — and can be seen in the fact that a majority of nurses and teachers are women, while a majority of managers and construction workers are men. (The Pew report found that the top job for women across all nontechnical skill sets was a registered nurse. For men, it was a manager.)

As a field becomes more masculine, wages go up, and as it becomes more feminine, wages go down — even when controlling for education and skills.

Experts say this has to do with our society’s philosophical feelings about caregiving — roles historically performed by women.

“If you look at teaching and nursing, they are decent jobs ... where you can make a living and you can feed your families,” says Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “However, they also deeply reflect the undervaluation of care work and basically of women’s work.”

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Nursing may be slowly starting to break through occupational segregation as more men join the ranks, says Hegewisch, a shift propelled in part by the massive need for caregivers for an aging baby boomer population.

As that happens, the hope is that salaries increase for everyone.

Another potential solution to the wage gap is to encourage women to think outside the “traditional box” — looking toward jobs that value social or foundational skills, yet go in a different direction.

Historically the job of supply chain — the process of getting your product to a consumer — has been male dominated, said Cyphert, but more and more women in her college are majoring in it, after recognizing that working with vendors and producers is, in the end, simply an exercise in building relationships.

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