Gender Wage Gap: Different Choices, Different Pay?

The gender wage gap has been a controversial topic for some time, even though the literature tends show the popular talking points to be exaggerated. For example, the claim that women make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes is misleading because this looks at the average wages of both men and women with no distinction made for careers, education, experience, hours worked, etc.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pg. 80), women work about 5 hours a week less than men. This has been true since 1976. Less hours tend to mean less pay. This has been found to be the case in the medical profession, law, and among MBAs. Men also work more overtime and thus reap its financial rewards. Firms are currently structured to disproportionately favor those who work longer hours (whether this should be changed is worth discussing). Women are also less likely to negotiate for higher salaries, at least when the rules for wage determination are left ambiguous. Noncognitive skills and family preferences also go a long way in explaining the gap. As a 2009 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor concluded,

Although additional research in this area is clearly needed, this study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers (pg. 2, bold mine).1

A brand new report draws similar conclusions about the choices of men and women when it comes to both careers and college majors (from the abstract):

[W]e find that women, on average, have a higher willingness to pay for jobs with greater work flexibility (lower hours, and part-time option availability) and job stability (lower risk of job loss), while men have a higher willingness to pay for jobs with higher earnings growth. In the second part of the paper, using data on students’ perceptions about the types of jobs that would be offered to them conditional on their college major choices, we relate these job attribute preferences to major choice. We find that students perceive jobs offered to humanities majors to have fewer hours, more worktime flexibility, and higher stability than jobs offered to economics/business majors. These job attributes are found to play a role in major choice, with women exhibiting greater sensitivity to nonpecuniary job attributes in major choice.

Check it out. There is still something like a 6-cents difference in the wages of men and women, which could possibly be due to discrimination.2 Nonetheless, if we want to get serious about addressing discrimination, we need to be accurate in our assessments. Ninety-four percent and 78% are big differences.

6 thoughts on “Gender Wage Gap: Different Choices, Different Pay?”

  1. Many of these factors do seem harmless, but I think there’s a good case to be made that allowing non-cognitive skills to influence wages is a sexist practice. And there aren’t that many jobs where “assertiveness” actually matters much to your on-the-job effectiveness (as opposed to your effectiveness in not letting your boss push you around). For whatever reason, women aren’t raised to be as assertive as men (or I suppose it’s possible that they’re naturally less good at it). If the system were set up so that wages depended on height (in jobs where height wasn’t necessary for good performance) that would be sexist for similar reasons.

  2. I see a lot of people make this point. I’ve yet to see anyone follow up with “Here’s how I propose addressing that 6% gap” or “In my view, the bias toward those who work longer hours is corrosive in the following situations, and employers undervalue the efforts of their employees to care for their families, so I support the following measures to reduce it”.

    I think you could get a lot of feminists on your side with a pitch like that.

  3. Atreus: I would say that bias toward certain non-cognitive skills isn’t necessarily sexist because *anyone* who, say, lacks confidence will often be seen as lacking competence (rightly or not). In the study, a lot of it goes back to making assertive negotiations. But you’re correct that this bias does end up translating into a culture that is often slanted against women. I’ve written about some of this here:

    Kelsey: I agree. the bias toward overwork isn’t good, for men or women. There is some evidence that shows we could do with far fewer hours.

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