The Wage Gap: Is Gender Bias the Chicken or the Egg?

When a field of work traditionally dominated by men is "feminized," guess what happens. Wages drop! This shows that gender bias is a factor - maybe a big one - in the ongoing "gender wage gap."

Women are said to earn somewhere between 77 and 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. One key explanation given for the wage gap is women's selection of fields that pay less. For example, teachers and social workers earn less than airline pilots and accountants -- and it just so happens that more women choose the low-paying fields and more men go into the higher-paying fields.

Which is the chicken and which is the egg? Could certain fields pay less because there are more women in them? Could gender drive pay scales up or down? In her recent NY Times piece titled, "As Women Take Over a Male-Dominated Field, the Pay Drops," Claire Cain Miller reviews several studies that indicate this is how it works. One from Cornell University shows that "the differences between the occupations and industries in which men and women work" is now the "single largest cause of the gender pay gap, accounting for more than half of it."

Miller cites statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that "the median earnings of technology managers (mostly men) are 27 percent higher than human resources managers (mostly women)." And the same pattern exists in lower-paying jobs: "janitors (usually men) earn 22 percent more than maids and housekeepers (usually women)."

Most distressing, Miller refers to a study published in Oxford Journals and titled "Occupational Feminization and Pay." That study used census data from 1950 to 2000 and found that "when women moved into occupations in large numbers, those jobs began paying less even after controlling for education, work experience, skills, race and geography."

So what does all this say about societal values about gender? I have argued that the cultural preference of masculine over feminine values and styles is the root cause of the fact that men still dominate in the higher levels of business and the professions. Is that same root cause at play in the wage gap, which is, mathematically, the composite result of millions of individual decisions about wages or salaries? Is it at play in the dollar value placed on male-dominated fields vs. female-dominated fields? Do we, as a society, unconsciously think men are worth more?

Unconscious gender bias creeps into how we value an individual's work -- and the work itself. Isn't it time we valued work for the importance of its contribution, the skills required, and the availability of people with those skills - and not by the gender of the talent pool?