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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Should Different Work Mean Different Pay?

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.