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

Francois Lenoir / Reuters

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.