Tell Us: Have Cultural Pressures Led You to a Lower Paying Job?

Francois Lenoir / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, I wrote about one of the most well-known explanations of the gender pay gap: Namely that men and women simply choose different jobs, which economists estimate account for about 30 percent of the 21 percent pay gap. It’s absolutely true that men and women choose professions differently, but my piece, which features a new report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute about gender and compensation, takes on how this fact has become a mainstay in the contention that the pay gap is “not real.”

Most women I know have heard some version of this explanation: Once adjusted for all the factors that could be noise, the gap is statistically significant but small. And if it’s different jobs holding women’s pay back, women would do well to become bankers/petroleum engineers/tech unicorn CEOs. The gender pay gap encapsulates so many issues surrounding women, men, and their decisions and relationships to work.

N=1 stories are, of course, incomparable to comprehensive as national statistics and serious economic analysis, but some of the nuances of the pay gap—as in, why there’s an unexplained residual (about 5 percent) even after so many statistical adjustments, or why certain elements, such as occupational differences, are so persistent—can be brought out by examining the nuances of why women choose certain jobs and the issues women face in the workplace. The progress on women’s wages has been stalling in recent years.

One reader thread in the comments section caught my eye:

This article equates lower-paying jobs with “bad” jobs. That equation is wrong—at any given skill level, lower-paying jobs pay less because they have other more desirable characteristics to make up for the pay. Unskilled retail jobs pay less than unskilled fracking jobs, because the retail job lets you work in an air-conditioned and safe place and doesn’t require you to move to North Dakota. Ivy League graduates have the choice between working in soul-crushing 100-hour-week investment banking jobs if they want to make more money or doing something creative and fun like writing for The Atlantic for less money. Investment banking isn’t a better or worse job than journalism—that just depends on what preferences the individual had for money vs. other career perks.

Women are more likely to take the retail option over the wildcatting option and the journalism option over the investment banking option. That doesn’t mean they were tricked into taking a “bad” job; that means they made a rational decision based on their own career preferences and goals to choose a lower-paying but otherwise more desirable job.

Another reader responds to that comment:

Nobody’s saying anyone was “tricked”; I don’t know how you’re reading into that. The issue is WHY what you’re saying is happening, is happening.

Every so often there’s a handwringing article about why so many intelligent young people are trying for creative jobs like comedian or writer, instead of becoming engineers. The point is that cultural forces are causing people to make suboptimal decisions, and it’s worth attempting to ply other cultural forces into engineering and away from starting an improv group.

Same thing. It’s bad that women segregate themselves into low-paying jobs, low-skill, low-influence jobs, for many reasons. It’s bad that many elite, educated women feel they have to make significant career sacrifices if they want kids. Or even long-term relationships. Just because something IS happening, doesn’t mean it’s SUPPOSED TO happen.

A third reader responds to the preceding comment:

You do have to make sacrifices to have relationships or have children. Anyone does. There’s certainly a bias towards women making a greater sacrifice, but at the end of the day, men can’t get pregnant. I work at a place that has very powerful women at all levels, including the highest position possible. If you want to have a lot of power at work, you must sacrifice time with family, no matter your gender.

It’s not bad that highly-educated women have to make sacrifices to have kids. It’s a fact of life. Children are their own investment, and whether or not they are worth it is up to the individual. There shouldn’t be a cultural effort to change that one direction or another.

A fourth reader responds to the first reader:

As a woman who has taken a soul-crushing job in finance for 15 years and now in a technology job, I can tell you that women are not making the same amounts of money for the same jobs. There are so few women who rise to management despite the fact that many work harder and are smarter. Women get tired of the boys-club and the game and leave. That’s the bigger problem.

There’s a lot here! But there are a couple ideas I want to highlight. First, that because of cultural norms, there are additional costs to women practicing some of the recommended solutions for closing the gap. I can definitely see the argument that “cultural forces are causing people to make suboptimal decisions”: In other words, women might stay away from certain professions, whether it’s because of costs to their personal lives or in the marriage market or some other dimension. Secondly, the idea that both genders have to make sacrifices at work in order to have families. Third, that the barriers to entry (and climbing the ladder) in male-dominated professions tend to be higher for woman than for female-dominated professions for men. The whole point is that there are factors at play that pay statistics aren’t great at capturing.

Have you experienced the kind of cultural norms leading to a career decision that you believe impacted your pay or professional trajectory? Please share your stories with us at and describe how you think cultural norms affect the decisions women (or men) make in the workplace.