Men and Women: Who’s the Poorer?

Mar 2, 2011 9:21am

Yesterday's White House report on the status of women in America has produced the usual headlines on the persistent pay gap between the sexes. But pay equity is not as simple an issue as it may seem.

Beyond level of education and choice of profession, there’s a strong correlation between how much a person is paid and the number of hours per week, weeks per year and years per life that they work for pay. Past analyses have shown that men work for pay more hours, weeks and years than women do; controlling for these attenuates pay discrepancies. 

It’s not, of course, that women do less work; rather that it’s customary for them to take on more uncompensated domestic responsibilities, which limits their availability to work for pay. That's a societal as much as a policy issue.  

Certainly time at a paying job isn't the only factor. Differing on-the-job roles and lack of mentoring can be challenges for working women. Discrimination surely happens, and my colleague Julie Phelan points out that a little goes a long way: Assuming that 5 percent of the variance in promotions is influenced by discrimination against women, one model found that from an equal start at the hiring level (50/50 men-women), the share of women in the population after seven promotion rounds is slashed to 29 percent.

Phelan, a social psychologist by training, also notes that just as societal expectations disadvantage women in earnings (“must nurture”), they likewise disadvantage men in the ability to spend more time with their families ("must provide"). One interesting question is who truly comes out the poorer.


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