Reporter's Notebook

Debating the Gender Pay Gap
Show Description +

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 hello@theatlantic.com.

Show None Newer Notes

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.

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.

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.

Another reader, Kate, responds to my callout about the cultural norms and pressures that might be affecting the way women make career decisions. She talks about the different kinds of real-life role models that men and women experience growing up:

I’m a landscape architect. My parents are both professors of landscape architecture. My sister is an urban planner. My grandfather was an architect. My parents are both feminists and worked diligently to ensure that my sister and I felt we were capable of achieving anything. They supported us tremendously and encouraged us to follow our dreams.

The problem was that our dreams didn’t stray far from what we knew.

We were surrounded by smart, accomplished, and interesting adults who served as wonderful role models. But almost all of them, family and friends, came from the same worlds of academia and design that my parents came from. We didn’t know any bankers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, or scientists. These professions barely crossed my mind as potential choices as a child or young adult.

And this is where I think gender comes into play. A man raised in my scenario would have had the same feminist upbringing and would have been given access to the same role models in design and academia. However, he would have also had countless examples of other options shown to him as well; men as bankers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, scientists (and many more) abound in the media, children’s books, and textbooks.

These would be presented as viable career options again and again, whereas I didn’t see those options. My parents didn’t hold those positions, the other adults I knew didn’t hold those positions, and I very rarely encountered any women holding those positions. Images of women in these jobs weren’t as prevalent as images of men in these jobs, which I think impacted my perception of what jobs were available to me.

I like what I do. I also like that because it’s similar to what my family members do, we can connect over those shared interests. However, I’m also interested in business. I’m interested in science. I’m interested in law. Sometimes I wonder whether I chose my profession correctly, or whether I was just shuffled into it because it was the obvious choice for me at the time. And because I’m a woman.

When I was very young, I remember wanting to become an astronaut, and at the time I’m not sure that seeing images of only male astronauts deterred me. Though so many of these signals are subliminal, and they come into play when we’re actually choosing what to study and which professions to pursue, rather than when we’re children dreaming of working. (Side note: I thought a lot about this while I was watching the new Ghostbusters movie and Equity.)

John Krumboltz, a professor at Stanford and a “career theorist,” emphasizes that passive learning—such as observing parents, family friends, and other significant role models—has a powerful influence on career decisions. Taking this further, I think that this influence, combined with the thinking that career decisions happen “naturally,” has the potential to perpetuate gendered occupational outcomes. One data project has shown that for some careers, children are more likely to end up in the same profession as their parents.