The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

The Wage Gap -- Unconscious Bias in Judging the Value of Predominantly "Female" Professions

Our unconscious bias in judging the value of women's work

I recently came by some remarkable research by Christine Alksnis at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario that offers an intriguing way to think about the wage gap — men and women are typically paid different wages for doing the same work in the United States, with women’s income ranging from 77 cents to 89 cents for every dollar earned by men. One reason offered by apologists for the wage gap is that men and women choose different kinds of professions. If you choose to become a high school teacher you can’t expect to make as much money as a software engineer, right? If only more women would go into traditionally masculine professions, the apologists say, the wage gap would vanish.

If it were only that easy. As I describe in The Invisible Current chapter in The Hidden Brain, unconscious sexism is ubiquitous and works in subtle ways. (Watch a video introduction to the chapter here). The problem is not just that the labor of women is undervalued relative to the labor of men in the same profession, but that professions that employ lots of women are undervalued compared to professions that tend to employ men.

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The question, in other words, may not be why women don’t become software engineers as often as they become high school teachers, but why software engineers are paid so much more than high school teachers? It’s the marketplace, you say? The market decides on the value of each profession and the market is neutral?

Alksnis and a colleague, Serge Desmarais, conducted an experiment that provides hard evidence to back up the intuitions of many feminist scholars who have long argued that we undervalue professions that employ women for little more reason than that these professions employ lots of women. They asked volunteers to estimate the salaries of store clerks and magazine editors. The catch was that volunteers were asked to estimate the salaries of two kinds of store clerks and two kinds of magazine editors. One store clerk was said to sell china and crystal, the other store clerk was said to sell hardware. One magazine editor was in charge of an automotive magazine and the other was the editor of a gourmet food magazine. Can you see what the researchers were upto? The skills, experience and educational qualifications required to be a store clerk in either case, or to be an editor in either case, are identical, but we tend to think of these positions in gendered terms. We think of the editor of the automotive magazine as being a man, and the gourmet magazine as being a woman, the china store clerk as being female, and the hardware clerk as being male.

Alksnis found that both male and female volunteers picked lower salaries when asked to guesstimate the salary of the store clerk who sold china compared to the salary of the hardware store clerk, and a lower salary for the gourmet food magazine editor compared to the automotive magazine editor. Ironically, the volunteers said the skills required for the different store clerks, and the different magazine editors, were identical.

In a paper published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Alksnis and Desmarais wrote, that “when participants assigned salaries to what they perceived as “male” and “female” jobs, the jobs that they identified as female-typed were assigned less pay than were the jobs they identified as male-type.”

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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