Why Some Women Skirt the Wage Gap

The gender wage disparity may be much more complicated than we thought.

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Slideshow: 7 Jobs in Which Women Out-Earn Men

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Take a look through the Labor Department's data on wages and you'll see an astonishing pattern. Nevermind modernity and women's liberation, men still make more than women in nearly all occupations. Consider that last year, in the middle of the "mancession" that disproportionately slashed men's jobs, male accountants had a median weekly haul of nearly $1,200. Female accountants: $900. Male pharmacists had median weekly earnings of $1,954, compared with their female counterparts, whose median earnings were $1,475—a full quarter less. Look closely at the numbers and you'll see just a small handful of jobs where women out-earned men—occupations like baker, busser, science technician and teacher assistant.

[Slideshow: 7 Jobs in Which Women Outearn Men.]

There are few issues as sensitive to a generation of women who work because of ambition, interest, and necessity than the issue of the gender wage disparity. There are few things so profoundly unfair as the idea that women routinely and pervasively earn less than men for precisely the same work. Even more—when women have shouldered a greater share of the household income burden, as the recession stole the jobs of husbands and fathers in construction and factory jobs—the fairness issue seems to pale in the face of sheer survival concerns. If a woman must work but she cannot provide the necessary level of income, her entire household suffers the cost.

In some occupations where women earn more than their male counterparts, the reasons may not have broad implications. Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap—and What Women Can Do About It, says that for some jobs, employers may actually be biased toward hiring women—as teaching assistants, for example, or massage therapists. Female bussers and bar backs may earn more because they are viewed as filling a nontraditional job, similar to a woman working as a bellhop. "We have an empathy for a woman carrying our baggage that goes beyond what we would for a male carrying our baggage," Farrell says.

But there is also evidence that women earn more in executive management positions. In the recent working paper, "Gender Differences in Executive Compensation and Job Mobility," researchers who studied the pay of executive managers at public companies found that among executives of the same rank and background, women are paid more than their male counterparts and are promoted just as quickly. "When you are comparing gender gaps, you have to be careful you're not comparing apples and oranges," says coauthor of the working paper George-Levi Gayle, who, along with authors Limor Golan and Robert Miller, is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.

The researchers controlled for variables such as educational background, career transitions, and longevity, so that comparisons could be, essentially, apples to apples. They found that controlling for those variables eliminated the male earnings advantage among executives. When variables are not controlled for, female executives earn less because they leave the working world at higher rates than men. "The gender pay gap and job rank differences are primarily attributable to female executives attritting at higher rates than males in an occupation where survival is rewarded with promotion and higher compensation," according to the authors. This suggests that researchers should be investigating not why women are paid less than men, but why women are leaving public companies, Gayle says. Although the data does not explain why women are paid more, the authors raise the possibility that women who reach the highest levels of business have chosen to stay in the workforce because they excel at what they do, while men may more generally feel that they ought to keep climbing the ladder.

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Farrell points to the wages of women and men who have never married or had kids: In this case, women earn 117 percent of what men earn, he says. When it comes to family responsibilities, women tend to make work-life choices with the goal of having a more balanced life, Farrell says, while men tend to make choices that lead to higher earnings. Women with families are more likely to try to work at home and avoid long-distance travel. St. Louis Federal Reserve researchers studied wage differences between married men and unmarried men and married women and unmarried women. Married men make more than unmarried men, but marriage alone has little effect on women's earnings. What does have an effect? Kids. "Wage differences between married and unmarried women can be explained by observable factors related to marriage, most notably, childbearing and childrearing," according to the 2003 report.