What causes these numbers?

Two things: women who are afraid to realize their potential, and men who think that women don’t have it. When I was nominated to the position as Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Department of Homeland Security back in 2006, I faced criticism that I was too young, and probably too female. During one of my Hill courtesy meetings, a Senator asked me if my husband approved of me taking the job. When I started at ICE, I was pregnant with our first child, and constantly faced questions about whether I was coming back to work after the baby, or could handle the job while pregnant.

Women face questions like this all the time, questions that try to poke holes in a woman’s confidence and in her ability to do her job, solely based on gender. This entrenches a preconceived notion of how we view what women can and can’t do, how we treat women, and how much we pay women.

Females are underpaid in every field but represent more than half of our workforce. How did we get here? Womenaren’t going for the opportunities they are qualified for and asking for raises, and this adds up over time. Women lose hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their career. However, it would be unfair to say that women are to blame for this status quo. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor, “By every measure, the wage gap endures despite women’s increased educational attainment, heightened labor force participation rates, and expanded access to jobs. Although they earn more qualifications and credentials, women earn less than men at every level of educational attainment.” The same report found that occupational segregation explains much of the wage gap, in addition to overwork, caregiving responsibilities, and discrimination.

What can be done to correct this?

To narrow the gap, we need to encourage women to raise their hands, not just once, but all of the time. To eliminate the gap, we need to tell women that it’s okay to try for positions that challenge them and to make mistakes. We need to support women and praise their failures for the attempts they made, as much as we praise their successes. Confidence plays a big role in this process. When I was a member of the Presidential personnel in the White House, helping choose people for cabinet and sub-cabinet positions, I saw an enormous difference in how men and women saw these jobs. Women thought they might have been qualified, but men were confident they were. I recall interviewing two people with virtually identical backgrounds and professional experience – the man said he wanted to be the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the woman said she would like to be a Special Assistant to the Deputy.

It is important to note that pay gap is narrower with younger women and that it has decreased exponentially over time, compared to women of all ages. As the Pew Research Center found, “the estimated 18-cent gender pay gap among all workers in 2017 has narrowed from 36 cents in 1980. In 1980, women ages 25 to 34 earned 33 cents less than their male counterparts, compared with 11 cents in 2017.” Young women are getting ahead quicker, so we must be doing something right.

Last year marked one hundred years since the women’s suffrage movement. It is my hope that another hundred years won’t pass before we can celebrate another milestone for women. It is upon us all to help women raise their hand. The same goes for salaries – women are often not the ones to start the tough conversations, and that allows society to only respond to the squeaky, often male, wheels.