At this point, the fact that women in the United States earn about about 80 cents to each dollar earned by men is so commonly known that it’s become both a perverse, if slightly tired, punch line and a litmus test in the culture wars.
But there’s plenty of variation under that top-line statistic. The wage gap is worse, for example, for women of color and for all women in prestigious, well-paying fields like finance and law. Even less often discussed: Geography accounts for 0.3 percent of the gap between male and female wages—which doesn’t sound like a lot, but adds up to more than $2 billion a year nationwide. In Montana, women earn 73 cents to the dollar on average; in Louisiana, they earn 69 cents.
One common explanation for the geographical differences is the fact that some states set a minimum wage that is higher than the national minimum wage. Since women make up nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers, those states’ policies raise the pay, on average, of female workers. This would seem to suggest that if a women wants to earn more, she can simply pick up and move elsewhere. But a working paper published Monday by three economists—Kerwin Kofi Charles of the University of Chicago, Jonathan Guryan of Northwestern University, and Jessica Pan of the National University of Singapore—complicates that notion.
Charles and his colleagues wanted to find out how sexism in a person’s birth state—as measured by people’s answers to survey questions about gender roles, such as, “Would you vote a female for President?”—might affect her workforce participation and earnings relative to men, even after she moves to another state. They studied groups of men and women who were born in one state but were living in another (focusing only on white people, to isolate gender effects from racial ones), and found that, on average, a difference of one standard deviation in the home states’ level of sexism—the difference between, say, California and Mississippi, or between Minnesota and Texas—accounted for a 0.8 percent drop in women’s participation in the labor force. The women from places with more sexist attitudes tended to earn less, too. “Where you live now matters more—but where you’re from matters a lot,” Charles told me.
The economists didn’t research why this was the case, but Charles theorized that it had something to do with the persistence of the cultural values we’re exposed to when we’re young. “My taste for a particular cuisine and my accent—there’s a little bit that I carry with me,” he told me. The same could be true, he said, of attitudes about a woman’s societal role—the age at which she should marry and bear children, for example, or the acceptability of negotiating for higher wages at work.
If this is a startling finding, perhaps it shouldn’t be. In fact, as Matthew Stewart has written in this magazine, intergenerational mobility in the U.S.—in essence, a person’s likelihood of being more financially successful than his or her parents—has declined over the past several decades. By one common measure, the relationship between a person’s financial well-being and her parents’ is stronger in the U.S. than in almost any other developed country. “In America,” Stewart writes, “the game is half over once you’ve selected your parents.” Add Charles and his colleagues’ findings, then, to the rising pile of evidence countering the idea that Americans, simply by virtue of being American, can rise above their station.