The Socialization of Women and the Gender Gap

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

We’ve already received a lot of insightful emails from you, readers, in response to my callout last week 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. But before getting to those emails, I wanted to share one of the most nuanced (and one of my favorite) discussions of the topic I’ve seen. Many of the ideas in this chat inspired my original piece on what gender pay statistics might not be capturing.

It’s a chat between two scholars on the topic: Marianne Bertrand, an economist and professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and an expert on the topic (I chatted with her previously about the slowdown in closing the gap), and Waverly Deutsch, a clinical professor in entrepreneurship also at Booth.

The entire conversation is over 30 minutes, but what Deutsch says really stood out to me. From the beginning, she says that the gender gap has generally become less of a story about the lack of opportunity or glass ceiling (save for heavily male-dominated industry, where these two things are still big issues), but that “what’s really interesting now is the role that women’s socialization and how women approach their careers … is one of the elements that might cause that gap to be persisting and make that last part of the gap harder to close.”

By socialization, she’s talking about a lot of things. Partly, all the ways women have been raised to be female which can interfere with their career. An easy example is the way a career woman who works long hours might suffer costs in the marriage market, since women are still expected to be the primary caregiver. Another example of socialization is the way girls are raised to be risk averse, a part of the tradition that only prepared young women for motherhood.

At around 17 minutes is when it gets really interesting.

Deutsch argues that anecdotal data is relevant, where as Bertrand says anecdotes belong in the error terms. When economists say n=1, they mean that anecdotal stories are just a tiny part of a much larger, and more reliable, dataset. But Deutsch pushes back, she argues that in same-gender households, for example, both women can be pointed to as being too much of a caretaker and spending too much effort at home (as opposed to at work) regardless of whether that’s true or not. Not to mention single women who can work just as many as hours as men. So the argument that women work less, do “easier” jobs, or focus too much effort on home- and family-life can, for some women, just be perceptions divorced from reality that lead to them being paid less.

I find this line of thinking compelling in light of research showing that as women take over male-dominated fields, pay drops by double-digit percentage points. It’s also widely acknowledged that one of the factors stalling progress in closing the pay gap is because most of the highest-paid jobs go to men. I’m also drawn to the way perception affects the way people price things, sort of in the way that CEO presentations at IPO roadshows can really affect how much a company can raise.