Last week on Equal Pay Day, we were reminded of a sobering statistic. For every dollar earned by a man who works full-time, a woman also working full-time will only earn $0.77. There are many theories as to why this gender pay gap exists, but according to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, there is one possible way to end it: work flexibility.

So why does the pay gap exist in the first place? Well, it all comes down to having children. When women leave the workforce in order to raise children, they often find it difficult to onramp back into their careers after their children are bigger. In a society where working longer hours and being available around the clock are held in high regard, being out of the workforce for years can negatively affect a working mother’s future earnings potential.

Another reason may be that women are sometimes less likely to push for a promotion. Again, that reason comes back to being a working mom. When you receive a promotion, you’re often expected to put in longer hours. When you’re trying to find work-life balance, working longer hours doesn’t fit into the equation.

Women may also hesitate to climb the corporate ladder because they are afraid that they will not be able to meet the needs of a high-powered position—and the demands of their boss. That fear prevents them from pushing farther ahead, or going after a job or promotion that they may really want.

It may seem like a workplace problem with no solution. How can women take time off to raise their families, yet still continue in their careers without having it financially hit their wallets? Goldin suggests the answer lies in work flexibility.

“The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might even vanish if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who worked long hours and who worked particular hours,” Goldin states in her study, “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter

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What Goldin discovered in her research is that the gender gap is not about gender at all—it’s about time spent working. Many companies still value 18+ hour workdays and face-to-face contact in an office. And since many women take time off from their careers to raise their children, it is inevitably men who are rewarded for putting in all those extra hours.

In order to close the pay gap, it’s crucial that companies give their workers the freedom to work flexibly, adds Goldin. Companies that have the smallest gender gaps often function as a R.O.W.E (Results Only Work Environment). These organizations reward the work no matter when it is done (e.g., at 2:00 PM or 2:00 AM). Interestingly enough, these organizations that are flexible with their workers are also able to maintain top-level female workers, too.

Unfortunately, some companies that do offer workplace flexibility may still favor men over women. A study in the Journal of Social Issues  found that men were granted flextime more than women. The reason: bosses simply assumed that women who wanted a flexible schedule only wanted one so they could start and raise a family.

In an article about Goldin’s research in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson warns that workers who are able to work longer hours should be compensated accordingly. In prestigious positions, where workers are valued for the fact that they are available 24/7 (such as managers, lawyers and corporate executives), it is important for them to be paid accordingly. However, he adds that when both men and women are working at such a high level, then it should be both accepted and encouraged that working fathers take time off from work, too. That way, work, pay, and workplace flexibility are equal on all levels, in all jobs, for both men and women.

Readers, do you think that work flexibility will help close the pay gap once and for all? Let us know in the comments section below!

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