Women’s Work Pays Less – And It Should

Career fields dominated by women tend to pay less than those dominated by men. But gender discrimination isn't the main reason.

Amherst economist Nancy Folbre thinks women earn less than men because they are naturally predisposed to taking jobs that don’t pay well.

In a careful analysis of longitudinal data on earnings that includes survey questions regarding attitudes related to work preferences, Nicole Fortin, at economist at the University of British Columbia, finds that women tend to place less importance on money and more importance on people and family than men do.

Those preferences help explain why women often choose to care for children and other family members, knowing full well that this will limit their career opportunities, lower their earnings and increase their economic vulnerability.

Both biological and cultural factors can explain attitudinal differences between women and men. In our society, caring for others has long been considered an essential aspect of femininity (social psychologists devote considerable effort to measuring such things). And sometimes women don’t choose girly jobs, but end up in them because they face discrimination or harassment in other jobs.


What’s striking is the high cost of femininity. Many traits that contribute to women’s success in finding a male partner don’t pay off in the labor market – and vice versa. As one economic analysis of a speed-dating experiment puts it, “Men do not value women’s intelligence or ambition when it exceeds their own.” By contrast, intelligence and ambition contribute to men’s success in both the “dating market” and the labor market.

But men’s attitudes toward women (which are changing, albeit slowly) don’t tell the whole story. Another factor is women’s affinity for services that aren’t rewarded by a market-based economy.

Indeed, market failures in the provision of these services help explain why we rely heavily on a welfare state that is, not incidentally, often dubbed a nanny state.

Folbre isn’t happy about this, observing, “We need to figure out how to honor girly values while earning manly pay.”

But, as Glenn Reynolds is amused to note, her commenters have some sharp retorts:

We should try to reverse the point of view and ask: why are some “manly” jobs paid more then “girly” jobs? Sometimes, it’s the only way to attract suitable candidates. Who wants to collect garbage? Who wants be a sailor? Salary is not the only reason for choosing a job. Many “girly” jobs are gratifying, while many manly jobs are stultifying. Why would someone work in a mine, if not for money?


So called girly jobs are usually cost centers. They are necessary but do not directly create profits. Even within corporations, the girly department is always human resources; necessary but not a driver of earnings. Men also tend to be risk takers. We see this develop very early on in boys. During the school years, taking risks and thinking outside the box is frowned upon; even punished and may explain the growing gap between the academic achievement of girls vs boys. In the real world, risk, innovation, entrepreneurship; bucking the status quo is rewarded. So while girls do better in school, their earnings later are perhaps lower not only because they choose ‘caring’ jobs (working for someone else) but because they are so accustomed to succeeding in a system that rewards conformity and compliance, they are unprepared to take the risks necessary to innovate and truly compete in a world without an established set of rules to follow. Instead of finding ways for girly jobs to pay manly wages, women need to start companies and produce goods and services that make money from girly values. Women have to want to make money and they have to take risks and that does not have to interfere with ‘caring’.

While I think both of these arguments have merit, it’s obviously the case that some high-paying jobs aren’t conducive to women, either because of physical requirements or cultural pressure. And there’s little doubt that the salaries of secretaries, teachers, nurses, and other traditional girl jobs were artificially low because, for generations, they were held almost exclusively by women.   Since women had few other alternatives and either had a husband’s salary to supplement their earnings or were expected to leave the workforce upon finding a husband, paying them less than a man — who, after all, had a family to support — was considered justified.

Regardless, though, the notion that we should start paying those who take “girly jobs” more money simply because there’s a disparate impact is bizarre.  If women are more apt than men to choose jobs they find psychically rewarding rather than focusing on salary, then they’re making a choice with an obvious trade-off.   Finding a job that’s both satisfying and lucrative is a rare serendipity, indeed.

Of course, it’s not only women making those choices.   When I pursued a PhD  in political science, I intentionally chose to trade off the potentially much greater financial reward of, say, corporate law practice and 70-hour work weeks for doing something I wanted to do.  And, while I occasionally bemoan society’s economic valuation system, I don’t begrudge those willing to live more stressful lives the luxuries that come with it.

Increasingly, men seem to be deciding that there’s more to life than money and that they’re willing to earn less in exchange for less stress and more time with their families.   Ironically,we’re able to make that trade-off precisely because our wives are also bringing in a paycheck.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Gender Issues, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure that much of this analysis stands up to scrutiny. Let’s take a single job: dental hygienist. Dental hygienists are overwhelmingly women. They make between $50,000 and $80,000 per year. It doesn’t require an enormous investment in secondary education—an associate degree is good enough and more education doesn’t produce significantly higher salary.

    The field is very portable and it’s a growth field. You can start, stop, take off a few years, and get a new job in the field easily. You don’t have to worry about buying equipment or finding patients. That’s the dentist’s job. Girly job? Yes. Well-compensated? Yes. That’s pretty good money for 2 years of education after high school. It’s as much as most lawyers make with four years of college, three years of law school, and a huge bundle of debt.

    The “manly” jobs are generally direct production but direct production has been declining in the United States for a century. Most people are involved in indirect production and, consequently, most of us have girly jobs now.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Dave, 14% of dentists are women. So, I guess the pay depends on where you stand. Probably similar dynamics exist btw/ lawyer and para-legal, doctor and nurse practitioner. You are suggesting the question is why don’t more men go into one of these intermediate professions where the pay and benefits are relatively good, and the demand is high. Others might ask why more women don’t become doctors, lawyers and dentists?

    (I may need to modify the lawyer class to those in private practice; women dominate the government and public interest, but are less than 20% of the partners in private practice)

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Others might ask why more women don’t become doctors, lawyers and dentists?

    As it happens I have an answer for that: opportunity costs. The opportunity costs not only in money and time but in terms of marriage and child rearing are substantial. Women who want to be stay-at-home moms and rear their children have the option of doing so and also making fairly decent money without great debts.

    About half of first year law students are women. What proportion would you expect? I haven’t been able to nail down the figures solidly but from the anecdotal stuff I’ve found about half of first year medical students are women, too.

    On dentists, you’re in the past. In 2002 nearly 40% of dental students were women. I suspect that’s risen since. The 14% figure (the correct figure in 2002) will undoubtedly rise as considering the larger number of female dental graduates.

    On an anecdotal basis quite some number of my clients are dentists. Most of my clients who are over 50 are men. Most of those who are under 40 are women.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I’m surprised by the number of women dentist for the reason you cite. A quick google indicates “about 3 out of 4 dentists in private practice are sole proprietors, and 1 in 7 belongs to a partnership.” That’s not terribly conducive to having children.

  5. 11B40 says:


    I’ve always, in a laughing up my sleeve, conceited way) loved the mindless bit of manipulative double-speak of the “male-dominated industry”. It seems to me that if the industry is such, that the males are being dominated by other males which is a “bad” thing (???), so we should have more females who would be then dominated by the males which would definitely be a “bad” thing, but hopefully, it would result in the eventual domination of the males (who built the industry???) by the more recently arrived females, which would also definitely be a “good” thing.

    Clear thinking can impede ideological success, so it is to be restricted. Self-restriction is even better.

  6. EJ says:

    there was a paper done in britain showing that the male/ famale wage discrepancy was highly correlated to how many children women have. Single men and single women without childred had no statistically signifigant wage gap. As a woman had more children, the wage gap increased. So the theory was that these women spend more time out of the workforce and therefore have less experience and they have purposely chosen jobs that focus on more time flexability and less stress rather than higher wages, so that they have more time and ability to focus on their children.

  7. Maxwell James says:

    PD, compared to other self-employed professions, dentists work very manageable hours. See here: http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos072.htm.

  8. Wayne says:

    The % of “first” year law or dental students isn’t anywhere as significant as % of graduates and even more importantly the % practicing in those field after a few years after graduating.

    I agree with most of what Nancy said. I don’t think it has anything to do with sexism per say but the nature of the world. The same applies to within the sexes as in what they are willing to do and their ability to do it.

    A person once complained that his high school daughter didn’t make as much as mine did as a CNA and how it was unfair that she had that job and his daughter work as a convenience clerk. I told him who to contact to get his daughter the same job. He said his daughter could never handle doing such a job. I just had to shake my head at that.

  9. James Joyner says:


  10. Dave Schuler says:

    According to the ABA about half of the law graduates are women. About 45% of the dental graduates are women. I’m not going to bother going after the proportion of medical graduates but I’ll remind everybody that once someone has been admitted to medical school the school is very highly motivated to keep them enrolled until graduation. The proportion of medical school dropouts is pretty low. 6% drop out after the first year, 2% the next, very, very few after that.

  11. Wayne says:

    That is more like it. Any idea on the % of women graduates compare to % of men graduates that are still with the profession after say 10 years or so?

  12. just me says:

    I think there is something to women often dropping out/slowing down when they have children.

    Teaching is a female dominated profession-I have seen many women leave for a year or more when they have children. Some stay out of the workforce for years.

    Nursing is a female dominated profession. My mom took about 5 or 6 years off when my sister and I were very young, then only worked part time for several years after that.

    My kids old optometrist was a woman, we had to change because she opted to leave the practice after having her first child. Her husband is also an optometrist and still working and building his practice.

    Those years out may not seem like much, but they do add up. In teaching a gap of 1 to 3 years can translate into thousands of dollars per year in salary.