Should Different Work Mean Different Pay?

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

Many readers have responded to my callout about the kind of cultural norms and pressures that might be affecting the way women make career decisions—which in turn affect their pay in the short or long run. One of these issues is the dual mystery of why stereotypically feminine jobs pay less, which might hold some answers as to whether women segregating into lower paying job is really the problem.

It’s natural to assess pay when choosing a job, but as discussed in many pay gap debates, men and women tend to prioritize different things when it comes to choosing a job. Pay is the measure we’re talking about, but hours, fulfillment, purpose, or lifestyle no doubt affect the equation. It’s also likely that some of these choices are based on the way people respond to social expectations: For women, this could be due to expectations at home regarding chores and childcare leading to a preference for jobs with more flexibility. For men, assortative mating might push them to jobs that project a “breadwinner” image to increase their chances of marriage. (More on this later!)

One reader wrote in about how jobs are priced. Economists will reason that wage differentials are the result of human capital (education, skills) and demand. Another reader, Andrew, questions this way of pricing, and how job choices are rarely just about salary. Further, that it’s important to disentangle women “choosing” lower paying jobs and employers choosing to pay “women’s work” less. Here’s Andrew:

There are many factors involved in choosing a job and that some things will be valued more than an incremental increase in pay. As a man who works as a schoolteacher, I have firsthand experience in why someone might choose a lower-paying career.

It is important to note that jobs that are traditionally considered “male” are consistently paid better than very similar jobs that were seen as “female.” For instance, why should doctors be paid so much
more than nurses, especially nurse practitioners? Or why should college professors be seen as higher in pay and prestige than K-12 teachers? [Anyone in those career fields want to sound off? Email hello@.] But even today, as more and more men enter these once almost exclusively feminine fields, the pay remains low.

The real payoff for any good teacher is seeing that your work makes a difference each day for your students. The privilege of helping them to grow, giving them the encouragement to take chances, modeling for them the excitement of learning—these are rewards that cannot be measured in dollars. Working in the classroom has made me a better person and taught me so much more than working in the corporate world did. And each day, I can see the results of my work in the responses, questions, and ideas of my students. The opportunity to care about and share life with so many young people is truly precious and humbling. I wake up excited about what we’re going to learn in class each day. How many office workers wake up excited to go to work?

That kind of life-affirming experience motivates many people to pursue careers with lower pay, ranging from schools and charities to public safety or even being a park ranger. Our society socializes to value social interactions and compassionate service. Is it strange to imagine that women are more likely than men to choose careers that emphasize these traits? The real question is why we choose to pay such workers less than others who have the same levels of education and skill. And often the answer seems to be because these jobs were mostly done by women. So the argument that the pay gap is due to taking such jobs is rather disingenuous.

A Canadian government initiative on closing the gender gap (sent to me by Johanne Perron) points to the fact that some job requirements (particularly those associated with female-dominated jobs) are often overlooked when employers price jobs. The report speculates that part of this practice might come from the fact that, once upon a time, salaries paid to women were considered “extra income.” Additionally, stereotypically feminine skills might still have low value (the “women’s jobs are easier” argument) in the marketplace due to a woman’s traditional role in the home: free labor.

It’s certainly worth asking whether these historical pay rationales are still embedded in the psychology of compensation. The way these skills are valued plays into the way employers pay, and that’s why some organizations are taking trying the exercise of valuing work based on extremely detailed job descriptions and skill evaluations with gender bias in mind. Pay transparency is very much an effort in the same vein—that spelling out salaries should lead to fairer pricing.

For example, the International Labour Organization has experimented with detailed job evaluation in Portugal to determine pay for men and women in hopes that this will mean fairer compensation:

Update from reader Julian:

I just wanted to make a quick point about Andrew’s comment, “why should college professors be seen as higher in pay and prestige than K-12 teachers?” This is really an irresponsible comparison, as > 50 percent of a college professor’s (i.e. tenure track faculty member’s) job is supervising a research group, with almost all career advancement (tenure, associate-to-full, merit salary increases) being tied to research productivity (i.e. how often and where you publish) and NOT teaching classes.

Service teaching is important, and there are many professors who are passionate about it at the post-secondary level, but it is not the focus of the position. When it comes to tenure, the mediocre teacher with good research record will be promoted over the stellar teacher with low publication/grant success ten times out of ten.

Interestingly, some dedicated teaching staff (i.e. adjuncts or sessional instructors) at the university level can be paid even less than K-12 teachers (who are acutely underpaid, mind you, but that’s another ball of wax) and get little to no benefits with no job security. There have been several articles written about this, including this one, this one, this one, and so on.

I think that the gender component of wage dichotomy is an important factor and challenge that we should all be working towards overcoming; but this particular comparison is simply apples and oranges.

Another reader is on the same page:

The key reason for the pay discrepancy is the much longer level of schooling required. A BSN-carrying nurse spends four years earning the credentials to practice nursing. An MD spends eight years of school, plus residency to practice medicine. The levels of responsibility and depth of knowledge required for each profession is completely different. (I say this as the daughter of an extremely intelligent and capable charge nurse.)

The same holds true for a K-12 educator vs a college professor; the depth of knowledge and amount of training required is much different. As someone who hopes to be a college educator someday, I’d honestly be pretty annoyed if an elementary school teacher was paid the same after four years of training as I was after spending ten years and possibly more in training (Bachelors, PhD, possibly postdoc).

I realize some nurses and K-12 educators do get advanced degrees. However, it's not required to enter the job.