Do Lesbians Earn More Than Heterosexual Women?

Exploring household division of labor in a nontraditional way.

December 31, 2010, 4:28 PM

Jan. 3, 2011— -- Lesbians who never married earned significantly more than previously married lesbians and heterosexual women, Census data suggests.

Economists say the older data has implications for home-work division for heterosexual and homosexual couples, but bloggers have only recently proposed their own theories for what generated the results.

The findings, based on the 2000 Census, concluded that never-married lesbians earned roughly 7.5 percent more than never-married singles, 9.6 percent more than previously married singles, and 5 percent more than currently married women.

The average wage of a lesbian was $18.70 per hour while the average hourly wage of cohabitating heterosexual females was $13.35.

The earnings of previously married lesbian partners, on the other hand, were not statistically different from the wages earned by married women. They were also not statistically different from the wages earned by single and cohabiting heterosexuals who never married. Previously married lesbians, however, do earn slightly more than previously married singles (2.3 percent).

The article is entitled "Previous Marriage and the Lesbian Wage Premium," published in the economics journal Industrial Relations in 2009.

Nasser Daneshvary, an economics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was surprised that bloggers from the New York Times, Atlantic Wire and Jezebel were only now reacting to the research, which was actually concluded in 2007.

"I was surprised and didn't know there was any media follow-up," said Daneshvary, who is now researching real estate in the Las Vegas housing market. He said President Obama's recent repeal of "Don't ask don't tell" policy is one possibility for the resurging interest in the research.

Daneshvary and two other economics professors at the University of Nevada -- Jeff Waddoups and Brad Wimmer -- chose to research the topic because they had studied labor market discrimination focused on differences in such demographic characteristics as race, ethnicity, gender and immigrant status.

Bloggers a Bit Presumptuous

"I saw this as a way to study how the traditional household division of labor in heterosexual households affects labor-market outcomes for women," said Waddoups, who also teaches a labor economics course.

He said the topic of household division of labor seems to "always generate interest and animated discussion among my students."

But he cautioned that bloggers are making assumptions that are not backed by data. One such theory on the website Boingboing was that lesbians are more assertive when it comes to their salaries than heterosexual women.

"It could be that there is more effective bargaining on the part of lesbians in the workplace, but our data set does not provide any evidence to that effect," Waddoups said.

Kevin Jones, deputy director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a national nonprofit addressing GLBT issues at work, cautioned that making generalizations about any community is dangerous territory.

"Many of my female colleagues in the financial services world were aggressive and not lesbians," Jones said.

Professor Daneshvary debunked another theory that lesbians may be able to work longer hours and earn more because they are less likely to have children at home.

"We did test to see the affect of children, but it wasn't there," he said. "In other words, in comparing lesbians and heterosexuals who have children, the children don't have impact."

Overall, he said, women's wages tend to be 5 percent less than men's wages, whether single or married.

Lee Badgett, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the research director at the Williams Institute at UCLA, pointed out that the data about children on wages is murkier than it seems.

"There's the mommy gap for heterosexual women. They earn less clearly when they have kids. But lesbians with kids in their household tend to earn more," Badgett said, citing a study called "The Cost of Parenthood: Unraveling the Effects of Sexual Orientation and Gender on Income," in 2009 by a sociology professor at the University of Houston.

Lesbians Make Different Decisions?

"That's another thing that heterosexual women are being penalized more and, for some reason, lesbians don't seem to have that effect. Is that because of gender roles, maybe? It's hard to interpret the results."

Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA, clarified that the higher wages lesbian women tend to receive were specific to older, white women.

"In past research, you don't see a wage premium in younger lesbians or African-American and Latina lesbians," Gates said. "You don't necessarily see non-white lesbian women making more than non-white heterosexual women."

Badgett said there may be interesting differences in the work decisions lesbians make that are resulting in higher wages, but it is unclear what those decisions are and when they take place.

"It's not because employers like hiring lesbians," Badgett said. "Or it's not because they're better bargainers or because they have more empowerment than heterosexual women."

Badgett said the study offered a new perspective because it highlighted that lesbians who had never married earned more than any other female income group.

"It adds to the weight of what a lot of us have thought: There are some differences in decisions that lesbians might make," she said. "You could also look at it to see if they're not as constrained by heterosexual gender roles. Heterosexual women may want to make those choices, too, but, perhaps in the context in their relationships, they can't."

Badgett cautioned that the use of the words "lesbian wage premium" could negate that lesbians are still experiencing prejudice at the workplace, even if their wages are higher than heterosexual women.

"Lesbians still experience discrimination," Badgett added, "as gay men do."

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