In discussions of the gender-pay gap, there’s one counter-argument that comes up a lot: The gap isn’t real, because after adjusting for the different types of jobs men and women tend to have, the gap shrinks to single digits. And so, the argument goes, men and women aren’t paid the same amount of money because they are choosing to go into different professions, and the labor market rewards their choices differently. In other words: unequal work, hence unequal pay.
There’s a lot of truth to this: Men and women do tend to choose different careers, so much so that researchers have a term for it: “gender occupational segregation.” And because of this occupational sorting, the most commonly mentioned figure of the gender-gap debate—that an American woman only earns 79 cents for every dollar a typical American man makes—is indeed too simple.
But the occupational differences explanation, when presented without caveats, is also problematic. "The story is a lot more complicated than that,” says Elise Gould, an economist and the co-author of a new report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute about gender and compensation. “We wanted to disentangle the question of 'choice' and what's happening between two workers that are sitting right next to each other in a cubicle … What's going on behind that in terms of cultural norms, expectations, work-family balance—all the different components that might lead women to be in certain kinds of jobs differently than men.”