Women, Money, and Bias: 'The Economy Is Classist, Then Racist, Then Sexist'

This week we posed a provocative question in our ongoing crowd-sourced series "Working It Out": Is the economy a level playing field for men and women, or are the cards stacked against one sex -- as the result of workplace sexism or the natural evolution of the economy?

Your responses were fabulous: nuanced, evidence-based, and diverse. You wrestled with the fact that women were staying in school longer than men, but earning less by degree at every level. You addressed the mommy track, where what looks like sexism to researchers seems more like a family decision on an individual level. You even quoted liberally from the Bureau of Labor Statistics!

Here are the best commments so far. Keep writing, and we'll keep reading and posting.


You can break this down into several categories.  First, there's the question of whether men and women who make similar decisions are treated similarly.  Second, there's the question of whether men and women do choose to make different decisions.  Third, you can ask why they choose different decisions, if they do.

A fair amount of data, such as this study, suggest that among single, young childless men and women living in the same city, women actually make more. That's without adjusting for choice of occupation, even.

However, it seems that men continue to outearn women in more rural and small town areas, when people get married, and among older workers.

Men are highly overrepresented in workplace fatalities and accidents, indicating that they are more likely to work dangerous jobs, something that can't be ignored when considering pay.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men worked 56% of the hours in the USA in 2010 but suffered 92% of the fatal workplace accidents.  (Page 10 here.)  Many of the jobs that involve workplace accidents do occur in small towns and rural locations; pay equality (or superiority for women) seems to occur in office situations.

The biggest remaining pay gap is about women overwhelmingly being the partner to sacrifice for marriage and kids.  That means not just taking time off from work, but also getting onto the "mommy track" of working reduced hours, not killing oneself for the top promotions, or choosing jobs with more benefits and security at the expense of pay.  There is certainly room to argue that the reason women are the ones to make those sacrifices is because of cultural pressure (though others will disagree), but I confess that I'm less concerned with government action if it appears that the differences are the result of choice (even if that choice is influenced by culture.) - John Thacker

Don't make blanket statements without apples-to-apples comparisons

Here are a couple comments on the current economy: older workers earn more than young workers. Currently older men earn more than currently older women. Currently younger women earn more than currently younger men.

If the workforce is composed more of older men and younger women (because older women work less and younger men are more likely to be unemployed) then that could explain the [gap].

We need to compare groups accurately. Saying that men with advanced degrees in science earn more than women doesn't mean much when the man is a professor on the verge of retirement and the woman is a fresh post-doc. - EconDoc

'Most of the wage gap explained ... by what women want'

Going by those same median wages, young, educated, childless women do earn more than men in an increasing number of settings.

This would seem to support the notion that employers aren't systemically sexist, at least when it comes to wage stats. I would say most of the wage gap moving forward will be explained by what women want from and are expected to give to marriage and children rather than any employer sexism ...

Due to the culture and biology of child birth and care, women have, on average, worked up to 6 months or a year less than a male counterpart. In the higher earnings fields, and the highly educated ones too, ladder climbing is extremely important to earnings. Women are much more likely to take a break from climbing that ladder due to factors that can't be fully explained by work place sexism. - wjaredh

Where 'female workers outearn men'

Women have enough of an edge when looking at just the unmarried in a number of cities that even ignoring marriage, female workers outearn men.

I also hope that you do understand that people see a big difference between "men outearn women for doing the same work" and "men outearn women because they choose more dangerous careers or are more likely to choose to sacrifice family for career, while women tend to do the reverse."  Both are discrimination in a sense, but one is definitely worse.

That's not to say that one can't be concerned about societal pressures that may coerce women into being the one to take off or compromise career for family, but it does seem like a different issue. - John Thacker

'I'm not sure there's discrimination or injustice'

The economy is certainly "sexist" in the sense that many of the ways to make middle class/upper middle class money if you don't have a college degree involve physical labor, and the statistical distribution of body strength is, well, favorable for men.  If you're a non-Amazon woman without a college degree what (legal) paths are there to reliably end up making $60-70k/year?  Maybe police officer?

The economy is also "sexist" in the sense that men still dominate the upward-mobility positions that allow people who didn't ace the SAT to still make a six figure income by working like crazy for it- commission based sales and small business ownership, for example.

I'm not sure there's discrimination or injustice in either of these cases, though.  Hence the quotation marks. - celestus

The 'Old Boys' Club' still rules

M and F may leave college with the same degree and unmarried state, but 10 years later, M is several levels higher than F in the organization.  And even if F managed to get the same promotions as M, M is 12% better compensated.  The "marriage" issue is not valid because a lot more women aren't having children until late in their careers, if at all, and the women aren't getting the promotions at the same rate as men. Statistics can be manipulated to support any view. Personal experience testifies that membership in the Old Boys' Club is still the determining factor for advancement in American business. - Exttras

'Women are constantly denigrated for not being feminine'

Women don't cut back hours because they "choose to be moms". They are forced to do more at home because their partners won't pick up the slack by changing their share of diapers and doing their share of feeding (with bottled breast milk for example), and perhaps most crucially, by being there when a child is sick, daycare is closed, etc. Someone has to do these things. So far, women are still doing most of them and that time devoted to child care isn't necessarily counted in studies on shared housework.

The economy is sexist against everyone: parental leave is essential in a modern economy. The U.S. is proving how much of a backwater it is by not having any. Ditto for universal health care.

There is a strong bias against women in trades, and in other jobs that have a high rate of accidents and death. It isn't necessarily because women don't want the work. However, I can personally attest that being isolated, ignored and passed over for help or promotion in an all-male setting like woodworking does nothing to integrate women into higher-risk occupations. Women are constantly denigrated for not being feminine in our society; yet, there are formal studies showing that more feminine women are viewed as incompetent in traditionally male-dominated industries. None of these facts add up to coincidence. They are all connected. - The Dom

'Women are sometimes perceived as being too aggressive if they negotiate'

According to a study cited in this npr article, women are sometimes perceived as being too aggressive if they negotiate the way that men do.   Typically they get the money but experience negative effects down the line when they're perceived as having a bad leadership style. Overall women as a group will be better off if we all just start negotiating and get everyone used to the fact that we're doing it, but I can see why individual women might look at that information and not be the ones to put themselves on the line. 

Also, this is all discussing women who are in a position to negotiate.  Plenty of low income women are in the kind of jobs where you don't even get a salary to negotiate. - LizR


I think the childcare situation is more complicated than women choosing to take time off to care for young children and men choosing not to do so.   First, many employers offer maternity benefits but not paternity benefits, or offer greater maternity benefits.  So there are often financial incentives for women to stay home and take care of young babies rather than returning work after they've recovered from the pregnancy, and letting their husbands do some of the work of caring for babies that are too young to send to preschool.  There's also the pay disparity - if the man in the couple makes more money, then it often makes more financial sense for the woman to stay home for the first few months, even if the couple would do something differently in a world where all choices were financially equal. 

In addition the finances being weighted in favor of slotting men into certain roles, it's still socially daring for men to take paternity time off, for men to be stay at home dads, for men to put their careers on hold in favor of their wives if someone needs to move for a job opportunity.  It's becoming increasingly common for men to take a backseat, but not as common as we would expect if gender were not a major factor in the decisions. 

In addition, we socialize men and boys to be interested in things like computer programming in a way that we don't socialize women and girls.  Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, 2002), reports on a series of in-depth interviews with 100 computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University.  Even among the students in a position to become some of the best computer scientists in the world, researchers found marked differences between the way that the girls' and boys' parents and teachers nurtured their relationship with technology.  Boys were more likely to have been given time alone with computers in their rooms, to be given leeway to take computers apart and play with their insides, to just be encouraged to play on a computer at all or to see it as a really positive thing.  This translated into boys feeling more comfortable and fearless with computers and to boys developing computer skills earlier, and to girls (even girls capable enough to major in CS at Carnegie Mellon), feeling like they had to play catch up with the boys in computer classes. 

There are also those studies, like "Gender-based barriers to senior management positions" by J.G. Oakley in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2000, which found that women who act assertive in leadership positions are more likely to be seen as b----, even when male colleagues demonstrating the same assertiveness are viewed positively.  This doesn't just affect women who want to be CEO's, it affects women who get into any blue collar job or retail job and want to advance to a leadership position. 

I will say that market is biased against men in some ways, especially men who are interested in traditionally female dominated professions like nursing or elementary school teaching.  It can be hard to find jobs, it can be hard face being mocked for your career choice.  We don't do a good job of encouraging men to look at a full range of career options, including those traditionally deemed to be women's work.  Some of those careers may be more fulfilling than more lucrative careers.  But there's still a phenomena in traditionally feminine jobs where men who take the job and suffer through challenging the stereotypes do well compared to women in the careers.  You can see this in elementary education and library science, where men who do go into the field are more likely to become library directors and school principals.

Intersectionality is a thing in the marketplace, there are men who suffer more from their race or sexual orientation or class or body-weight or disability than some women suffer from their gender.  There are men who never get over the male nurse jokes enough to go into the jobs they really want.  There are women who never directly experience discrimination in the work place, and some of those women are even in fields that are traditionally very heavily male-dominated.  There are women who benefit hugely from affirmative action if they can make it past the obstacles and get into very heavily male-dominated fields.  But there's a large body of research (I've just barely touched the tiniest tip of the iceberg in this really long comment) that over all things are tilted a little bit in favor of men in most of the job market. 

And part of the way we change that is by changing it.  You're going to get a snowball cyclical effect from having more employers offer paternity leave, from having more women in leadership positions, from having more women in technical fields.  We're seeing the beginnings of changes now, but we're certainly not all the way to equality, let alone out the other side to the job market being sexist overall in favor of women. - LizR

'The economy is classist, then racist, then sexist'

Is the economy sexist? Not evenly. The economy is first classist, treating the wealthy different from the poor. Within each group, the economy is racist, and within each group, the economy is sexist. And if we looked within each sex, I suspect there again would be discrimination along sexual orientation lines, when it was obvious. - RobertSF

'The goal should be equal pay for equal work. That's it.'

I consider myself a far-left liberal and a feminist. The claim that women "earn 77 cents on the dollar" compared to men is an outright falsehood.

This may be true in aggregate, but its not true in regard to "equal pay for equal work".

My position, and I think the position of many people, is that everyone, black, white, male, female, etc. should get "equal pay for equal work". Absolutely, but the reality is that we are pretty much already there.

Maybe not 100%  there in certain fields, but we are pretty darn close, and let's not forget that while there may be bias against women in certain fields, there is also bias against men in certain fields as well, and I don't just mean models, I mean stuff like nursing, etc.

Much of the difference in incomes is due to the distribution of job types among the sexes. Take for example a dentist's office. Like 95% of dental hygienists are women, yet only about 17% of dentists are women. Dentists have incomes roughly 10X greater than hygienists, so this fact alone means that if you were to look only at a population of dentists and hygienists what you would see is that women "earn about 12 cents on the dollar" compared to men.

But does that really mean that "women" are getting under paid or that there is an unfair bias against women? Not really, the bias, if we can call it that, is a discrepancy between income for dentists and hygienists. 

But now look. How could that imbalance be rectified? Well, one way to do it would actually be to increase the portion of men who are hygienists!

And here is the real issue. When you look at numbers in aggregate, it's not enough to balance the equation for more women to take on higher earning positions. In order to balance the equation more men would also have to take lower paying positions.

These distinctions are largely products of the jobs themselves, not differences in pay for given jobs, but the differences are rather products of the differences in pay for nurses vs doctors or day care workers vs construction workers or waitresses vs line cooks, etc.

So the only way to actually get economic parity would either be to increase the pay for jobs that women predominately do, like day care workers and waitresses, etc. or have more men go into those positions!

Now consider the reason that day care workers are 98% female. Men are heavily discriminated against for positions like nursing and day care. So unless we want day cares staffed by 50% men, etc. then there is no resolution to this issue other than increasing pay for certain jobs dominated by women, but how do you do that? There is no way to do that without total abandonment of all vestiges of a market economy altogether. It would literally require price setting for all wages or some other very heavy form of market control.

My point is that the goal should be equal pay for equal work, that's it. And after all, why are we so concerned with the pay differences between men and women? Why does this comparison deserve special treatment? What about black vs white? I'd argue that black vs white is a much bigger issue because most women (not all of course) share a household with a man, and thus their incomes get combined anyway, yet most blacks don't share a house hold with a white person, so black families get compound discrimination, whereas white male/female families get offsetting incomes.

Also, look at other income differences, for examples Jews vs non-Jews, or homosexual vs straight. Jews and homosexuals have higher incomes on average than non-Jews or straight people respectively, but do we attribute this difference to discrimination? The point is that you can stratify any sample any number of ways and find differences in aggregate. The notion that in order to claim that there is no bias we would need to see total income equality across some metric is a falsehood.

And this is totally an anecdote, but in my personal situation my wife has an higher income than me, and IMO (and hers too) does far less work than me. She's in HR at a large company though, I'm a software developer at a small company (and have long worked for small companies).

What I'd really like to see, however, are income comparisons for self-employed men vs women. Again, let's look at doctors and dentists, lawyers, veterinarians, store owners, etc. I'd be very interested to see a comparison of male vs female incomes among people whose incomes aren't determined by employers... 

And let's go back to the unemployment issue. The fact is that women have employment opportunities, for better or worse, that men simply don't have. I suspect that this plays some role in the difference in overall compensation between women and men. Women I think generally have easier entry into the employment marketplace than men, and as a result they may settle for lower paying and easier to get jobs, whereas men can't get those jobs and thus are forced to look for  harder to get, but higher paying, jobs.

Case in point, waitress or day care worker. Yes, men can get a job waiting tables, but its much easier for a women, at least as long as they are at least modestly attractive (unattractive men and women are both discriminated against in this line of work). As a result, a woman may take a job like this where a man would end up going unemployed, but as a result the man may end up finding a higher paying job (like construction) or seek more job skills to be able to get a job (which will in return be higher paying). The theory here is that men have to work harder just to get a job, but as a result tend to get higher paying jobs. Its easier for women to find jobs, and as a result many lower paying jobs end up going to women, which are jobs that men can't even get. - R. G. Price


it's the wrong damn question.  The real bias in the US economy is classism.

A wealthy woman isn't much hampered by her gender.  Neither is a wealthy man.

The dog fight takes place in the lower classes, where diminishing jobs due to rising productivity are putting downward wage pressure on both men and women.  And it's here that anecdotes fly and genders perceive the wrong reasons for what is happening to their wage and job prospects.

Mind you, I'm not saying that there is not some residual income disparity in the lower classes, or that sexism doesn't happen.  There is, and it does.  But it's much improved over where we were in the 70's.  That trend has been in a good direction overall.

But the classist bias in the US economy has been growing by leaps and bounds.  And that's why it's the right question to probe. - urgelt

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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