Reporter's Notebook

Debating the Gender Pay Gap
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Bourree Lam leads a discussion over why women on average earn less then men, and we hear from readers about their firsthand experiences in the workforce. If you’re a man or woman with a story to tell, or you disagree with some of the points that Bourree or readers are making, please send a note to

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Are Women Insuring Themselves Against Low-Paid Jobs?

Nanette Fondas, a contributor to The Atlantic, writes in to the hello@ address about the concept of women picking certain college majors and professionals as a way of insuring against low-wage jobs (the bolding is my own):

There is an intriguing, unreported piece to this puzzle. As you’ve written, part of the gap is explained by occupational choice; for example, some people choose creative, lower-paying jobs, while others choose dangerous, higher paying work.

But what explains such occupational choices and the gender differences therein? Yes, some choices originate in cultural conditioning and socialization, combined with an emerging understanding that long, uninterrupted hours of work cannot be combined well with child-rearing for women or men.

A paper by Georgetown University economist Mary Ann Bronson adds another insight. Her research shows that, while women today outpace men in college attainment, women still systematically choose majors that lead to lower paying jobs. The reason is fascinating. Since women draw from a lower wage distribution to begin with (because of the gender wage gap), a woman is more likely to use her college degree as insurance against the real possibility of landing in a low-paying occupation, particularly if she fails to go to college at all. She’s insuring against very low income, especially if she is the sole household earner because of divorce.

Bronson’s study subtlety considers class as well as gender, something writers have called for but rarely produced. It also offers a peek into the different psychological mindset of women who aren’t gunning for the top echelon (like those investment bankers and lawyers working tremendously long hours, described by Marianne Bertrand) but rather avoiding a fall to the bottom.

This is another interesting way of thinking about the choices women make, namely that of picking majors that lead to jobs with greater flexibility but also getting a degree to avoid being at the bottom when they face the “sticky floor”—what economists call the pattern of women’s wages holding steady as their careers progress while men’s wages keep increasing.

But this behavior, of education insuring against lower wages, highlights another problematic recommendation: that women might be able to educate themselves out of the gender pay gap. It’s still true that getting a college degree means a much higher paycheck (for both men and women), but women are now getting college degrees at a higher rate than men yet still their pay lags behind men at every education level. In fact, the earnings gap is the widest at the highest level of education.

A young female welder adjusts her goggles, Groton, Connecticut, 1943. Photograph by Bernard Hoffman.

A photo posted by History In Pics (@historyphotographed) on

A reader writes:

Those who blame cultural norms and expectations for women choosing different career are incredibly patronizing. They’re basically telling women they are too dumb and brainwashed to make their own decisions.

Theoretically, I agree. But when it comes to the gender gap, it’s about why these rational decisions happen. I think we live in a world where these norms mean that those decisions manifest different costs.

A few readers below have great examples of ignoring culture norms—something trailblazing women and those entering male-dominated professions have probably had experience with. Here’s the first:

My family actively told me I would fail science and math courses. I was told that “girls don’t take Physics” and “You’re just going to fail out of school, so you should just drop out and come home.” I was called dummy and stupid. I was actively discouraged. My father yelled at me because he was angry that I took Organic Chemistry and he could not understand it. He even told me I would die without him. Typical abusive narcissistic parent.

But thanks to my best friend and mentors, I graduated with my science degree, went to law school, and have been practicing law for the past four years. Luckily I’m independent and stubborn, otherwise I see how it’s very easy to cave into the pressure and believe the BS.

Next is a longer personal story from a woman who also didn’t let direct cultural pressures hold her back (the bolding is my own):

I am an ICU physician who works at one of the largest university-run hospitals in the country. Of the 30 or so individuals in my division, approximately one-third are women, and I am the only woman who has clinical duties solely in the ICU.

According to the 2012 Association of American Medical Colleges, only 30 percent of active physicians in the U.S. are women, despite the fact that 46 percent of trainees (physicians in internship, residency, or fellowship) are women. In internal medicine, the broad scope that encompasses my subspecialty, 34 percent of practicing physicians are women. In pulmonary and critical care medicine, my subspecialty, almost 17 percent of practicing physicians are women. That means I am one of only 2100 female ICU physicians in this country, out of an adult female population of over 84.3 million.

I give this background because my experience is more about trying to ignore cultural norms. Statistically speaking, I’ve already succeeded. I am grateful because I understand how improbable this is, and grateful that my community has supported me throughout this endeavor.

My spouse tolerates the “so who wears the pants in the relationship?” jabs (for the record, there are no pants). My parents smile and nod when people exclaim how their daughter chose “such a difficult profession.”

This is not to say that people have not tried to dissuade me. There was the great-aunt who asked why I would go to medical school when I could move back to Asia and teach English. My mother really hoped I would become a geriatrician and open a clinic because she thought the lifestyle would be better. Nearly everyone raised eyebrows when I told them what I wanted to do, usually followed with a “Are you sure?” as if to say that my chosen profession was too hard.

But when the time came for me to decide if I wanted to be in academics or go into private practice, cultural norms still played a role in the position I ultimately chose.

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.

Many readers have responded 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.

One theme that’s come up in these accounts is that of a hostile work environment. Namely, that women are aware of them in certain industries and—no surprise—don’t want to work in them. This is just rational calculation, since what people get out of having a job is rarely just about money. Jobs not only give us meaning, they determine our schedules and time-use, give us colleagues (or clients or patients or customers) to interact with, and give us tasks to accomplish. For women, a hostile environment, or one that demonstrates a lack of opportunity to grow or rise through the ranks, is undoubtedly a factor in career decision-making.

Before getting to our reader stories, I want to share part of a testimony from Betsey Stevenson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers who was chief economist at the Labor Department from 2010 to 2011, from an U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hearing earlier this year (the bolding is my own):

Implicit discrimination has proven to be more difficult to eradicate than explicit discrimination has … Importantly, the 79 percent figure does not tell us how much discrimination is occurring. Even today, women have different educational attainment, work in different occupations and industries, and have different workplace experience. These differences have explained part of the wage gap in the past. During the 1980s and 1990s, women’s education and experience gains were the primary drivers narrowing the gender wage gap. Today, women receive more post-secondary degrees than men, so accounting for education actually widens the pay gap.

Over the past 40 years, women have also been increasingly entering occupations that were historically male-dominated. However, even with this progress, differences in occupation and industry persist.

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.

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.