“Women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes” is a statistic tossed around with abandon by elites across the spectrum, from liberal politicians to university administrators to Davos-going corporate executives. The clear implication is that American institutions are sexist to the core—that they deliberately keep women down, either by paying them less for the same work or by blocking them from remunerative career paths.
This sentiment doesn’t come out of nowhere, of course—for most of human history, women really were systematically kept out of positions of influence. And surely some discrimination persists today. But as a new National Bureau of Economic Research study suggests, a good chunk of observed career and compensation imbalance between the sexes can be chalked up entirely to benign differences in personal preferences.
In the study, Matthew Wiswall of Arizona State University and Basit Zafar of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York presented undergraduate students with a realistic set of career scenarios that varied in terms of their “future earnings growth, dismissal probability, and work hours flexibility” and asked them to pick the ones they preferred. And they found large differences in the way men and women factored these characteristics into their selection process, with men prioritizing wages and women prioritizing flexibility and security:
When dividing our sample by gender, we find that women have a higher average preference for workplace hours flexibility, with an implied willingness-to-pay of 7.3% compared to 1% for men. Women also have a higher WTP for more secure jobs- they are willing to give up 4% of their salary for a percentage point lower probability of job dismissal (versus a 0.6% WTP for males). On the other hand, men have a higher WTP for jobs with higher earnings growth: they are willing to give up 3.4% of annual earnings for a job with a percentage point higher earnings growth (the corresponding estimate for women is a statistically insignificant 0.6%).
Wiswall and Zafar also conducted a similar experiment on college major choices, and found a similar effect:
In general, we find that females’ major choices are more responsive to changes in non-pecuniary job attributes (relative to changes in earnings) than males, suggestive of their greater sensitivity to non-monetary aspects of the choice in human capital investment decisions.
In other words, men and women have measurably different priorities when it comes to choosing jobs and majors. So while it may be the case that the underrepresentation of women in software engineering or cardiovascular surgery (or, for that matter, the underrepresentation of men in veterinary medicine!) is related to discrimination and stereotypes, it’s also clear that not all gender-based differences in outcome are nefarious.
Our conversations about gender inequality could be elevated and improved if advocacy groups made more room for accepting that men and women, on average, use different criteria to make career choices. Then again, they might argue that these differences in preferences are themselves the result of discrimination—a kind of false consciousness imposed on malleable women by the patriarchy. But isn’t that position—which demeans women’s personal agency—more sexist than anything pay-gap skeptics have ever proposed?