The Biggest Myth About the Gender Wage Gap

The real gap isn't between men and women doing the same job. It's between the different jobs that men and women take.

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It might be the most famous statistic about female workers in the United States: Women earn "only 72 percent as much as their male counterparts."

It's also famously false

A new survey from PayScale this morning finds that the wage gap nearly evaporates when you control for occupation and experience among the most common jobs, especially among less experienced workers. It is only as careers advance, they found, that men outpaced female earnings as they made their way toward the executive suite.

So, women aren't starting off behind their male counterparts, so much as they're choosing different jobs and losing ground later in their careers.

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The irony is that as women advance in their own careers, they might be more likely to fall behind, but they are also more likely to negotiate. That popular refrain that women don't know how to ask for a raise? That's bunk, too, the researchers concluded. Nearly a third of women -- and 29 percent of men -- have asked for raises, and even more female executives have done the same. In female-dominated sectors like health care and education more, half of women have negotiated for salary, benefits, or a promotion .

Still, inequalities persist. Comparing men and women job-by-job conceals the fact that men still dominate many of the highest-paying jobs. PayScale studied more than 120 occupation categories, from "machinist" to "dietician." Nine of the ten lowest-paying jobs (e.g.: child-care worker, library assistant) were disproportionately female. Nine of the ten highest-paying jobs (e.g.: software architect, psychiatrist) were majority male. Nurse anesthetist was the best-paid position held mostly by women; but an estimated 69 percent of better-paid anesthesiologists were male.

The highest-paid job in PayScale's controlled set is anesthesiologists, who are 69 percent male and 31 percent female -- creating a 38 percent percentage-point "jobs gap." Here is the jobs gap for the ten highest-paid positions.

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PayScale's study is a necessary chaser to BLS and Census data, because the government "compares all weekly earnings, even though women and men do different things," said PayScale chief economist Katie Bardaro. "We're trying to compare men and women with the same education, same management responsibilities, similar employers, in companies with a similar number of employees." After controlling for these factors, "the gender wage gap disappears for most positions," she said.

In one job, they had enough data to show a statistically significant wage advantage for female workers. That is "dental hygienist."

But even if the gender gap disappears after controlling for experience and job selection, it's hard to imagine that men thoroughly dominating the highest-paying positions is a good outcome. For example, the expectation that women more than men bear the responsibility to raise children gently nudges thousands of highly educated women out of full-time work.

There is a wage difference. But it might not be the wage difference that you thought. The real gap isn't between men and women doing the same job. The real gap is between men and women doing different jobs and following different careers.

That gap should continue to tighten. Women have earned the majority of bachelor's degrees for the last few years. They're well-positioned to benefit from a growing professional service economy, and working moms are already the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with kids, an all-time high. But if women are more likely to go into health care than manufacturing, more likely to work in human resources than software, and more likely to leave their careers early to start a family, the gaps will persist.

Ideally, some day soon, it won't take a statistical "control" to show that men and women are fundamental equal partners -- and equal competitors -- in the work force. It will just be the obvious truth.

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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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