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The Myth of the Gender Pay Gap Myth: Gender Roles, Stereotypes, and Sexism

Updated on October 19, 2015
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I love to explore the relationship between the fictional worlds we create for movies, books, games, etc. and the real world.

The Gender Pay Gap Myth

The gender pay gap is a popular rallying cry for feminists. Everyone is familiar with the claim that women only make .77 cents for every dollar a man makes. (Or .78 cents or .79 cents or a bevy of similar numbers. The actual number isn't important right now.) Recently, this claim has come under much scrutiny, and there are good, convincing reasons to believe that much, though perhaps not all, of the wage gap is a product, not of overt sexism, but of the different choices that men and women make with regard to things like career and family.

For many people critical of feminism, this seems to clear the matter up to their satisfaction: choices, not discrimination, determine how much money you make. Men make more choices in favor of working longer hours with less time off in more lucrative fields than women. Case closed.

But shouldn't we be curious about why women make those choices? Is it really as simple as assuming that women, compared to men, just prefer to "take it easy"? That they value family, friendships, and free time more than men do? How could it happen that the genders differ so markedly in these areas? Is there a biological reason for this difference? Are women and men innately different?

Nature, Nurture, and Statistics

Now, it may very well be that there are biological differences between men and women that predispose them to different behaviors; all animals have instinctive behaviors associated with their reproductive roles, so it's a reasonable scientific assumption.

But such differences are very hard to determine. If one merely looks at career and maternity statistics, even cross-culturally, one isn't studying biological differences, one is studying whole people who consist of both bodies and minds, people who are driven by both biology and social factors. There is no way to isolate the biological determinants from the cultural determinants so these statistical analyses are always "muddled". No one can say for certain how much these differences depend on biology and how much they depend on socialization. Statistics, in other words, provide no evidence one way or the other regarding the nature vs nurture argument.

Gender Roles and Gender Stereotypes

But we may not need to turn to biology to find satisfactory explanations for the gender pay gap. Granting that biology provides culture with a "kernel" around which to build gender differences -- perhaps a slightly stronger tendency for women to cooperate instead of compete, for example -- it is still possible to explain most (if not all) of the wage gap by reference to gender stereotypes.

Typically, at some point in discussions of the gender pay gap, someone brings up the subject of gender roles. When people talk about gender roles, they're typically referring to occupational choices and decisions about who does the cooking and cleaning and who stays home to take care of the kids. Those differences are important, but gender roles are much, much more extensive and pervasive and impact every facet of our lives. The basis of the gender pay gap goes beyond the division of labor to the very heart of how we see and feel about ourselves as people.

In this article, I'm going to make a distinction between gender roles (behaviors) and gender stereotypes (character) because the real issue when it comes to the wage gap is not primarily about occupational choices, as surprising as that claim may appear to be; instead, occupational choices and the decision about who takes care of the children are themselves a symptom of the underlying problem: stereotypes about what makes a man a "good" man and what makes a woman a "good" woman (character). These different idealizations of men and women create different incentives and disincentives and it is these different rewards and punishments that lead women to make different choices than men (behaviors).

Gender Polarization: Ideal Men and Women

Gender stereotypes include both the best and the worst aspects of cultural assumptions about men and women: both the ideals and the fears. Men are strong but prone to violence; women are nurturing but manipulative. We all know what the stereotypes are so there's no need to elaborate them here. We absorb them endlessly through media representations and by observing the individuals around us.

The salient detail about gender stereotypes is that they polarize behaviors. Men and women come to understand themselves and each other through their differences, and the more exaggerated the difference, the more appealing they often seem to be to members of the opposite sex. In fact, the dynamics of sexual attraction incentivize this polarization.

But this polarization is not restricted to the battle of the sexes; the same stereotypes hold good between men and other men and women and other women. Men have ideas about what makes a man a good man, and women have ideas about what makes a woman a good woman. And often what makes a man a good man is that he's not like a woman and what makes a woman a good woman is that she's not like a man! Same sex friendships (and partnerships), therefore, can also lead to gender polarization.

If you browse the romance section of your local bookstore (or Amazon) you'll quickly realize that many women are attracted to high status men who are talented, competent, successful, and composed under pressure. It isn't quite so obvious what psychological characteristics men are attracted to but a little digging will turn up that, on average, they're attracted to women who are modest, cooperative, nurturing, and emotionally vulnerable. You'll also discover that many men are intimidated by the prospect of marrying a woman who is more successful than themselves. It's precisely these sorts of differences between the stereotypes that account for the different choices that men and women make.

Here are a few ways that gender polarization contributes to the creation of the gender pay gap.

Assertiveness and Competition

The most important difference lies in the area of assertiveness and competition.

In our culture, there is an expectation that "real" men are assertive and competitive. They "man up", get up off their butts, and do things. Men are conditioned to win. Their rivalries may be friendly or bloody, but they're accepted. If a man is not competitive, if he fails to be assertive, he loses stature in the eyes of other men and is less attractive to women. Men, therefore, are strongly incentivized to be assertive and competitive.

Women, by contrast, are expected to be modest and cooperative. Assertive, competitive women are perceived to be "bossy". When they come into competition with men, they're "ball busters", and get a reputation for being "hostile" and "aggressive". Their behavior is intimidating and actively hurts their prospects of attracting a partner. Additionally, when they come into competition with other women, they're often excluded for not being a "team player" and are perceived to be "bitchy" and "domineering". Women, therefore, are strongly disincentivized to be assertive and competitive.

Because women are expected to be sympathetic and nurturing, and men are expected to be tough and "no nonsense", men are incentivized to be tough negotiators and women are encouraged to make compromises, which has obvious implications when it comes to asking for raises and promotions. To be a "good" woman, a woman must not be too demanding or ambitious. To be a "good" man, a man must be demanding and ambitious. In this case, men are supported by the stereotypes and women are in conflict with it.

Marriage Material

The second area where the differences in gender stereotypes lead to different incentives is in the area of relationships.

In our culture, women prefer to "marry up" and men prefer to "marry down". Because competition and status are so innate to the mindset of many men, most men find women who are more successful than themselves to be intimidating. By contrast women are not only more attracted to men who are more successful than themselves, they experience social pressure not to marry "beneath their level". Marrying someone who is less accomplished and who makes less money is considered a failing of a sort if you're a woman; people want to know why you couldn't "do better". So here is a second way that men are incentivized to be competitive and ambitious and women are disincentivized.

Providers and Caretakers

The third area is one that is often brought up in connection with gender roles.

For a man to take paternity leave, or be a SAHD (stay at home dad), is still frowned upon in our culture. People suspect that he is motivated by laziness, or they form the impression that it's his wife who "wears the pants" in the relationship, which can damage his status. Men are thus disincentivized to be the one who stays at home with the children. They are, by contrast, expected to provide for their wife and children.

In opposition to this, there is very strong pressure on women to take maternity leave and even to take time off work to raise the children. If she doesn't, she runs the risk of being perceived to be a "bad mother" who cares more about her career than her family, a prejudice which men don't have to worry about. If there are elderly parents or other dependents in the family, it is often women who are expected to care for them. So once again, men are incentivized to work and women are incentivized to be unpaid caretakers.

Hard and Soft Skills

Related to the provider/caretaker distinction is the prejudice that women aren't "as good" at "hard", "factual" subjects like math and science but are more suited toward "soft", "people-oriented" subjects like teaching and nursing.

Whether or not there are any actual differences between men and women in these areas (and there doesn't seem to be much scientific evidence to support it) it does affect how men and women think about themselves and the careers they eventually choose to pursue. Some women get the notion that they're just not good with numbers because they're women, and some men get the notion that they're just not good with people because they're men. It doesn't have to be true for a person to believe it and make their decision based on that belief.

"Is Your Husband At Home?"

Women are all too familiar with the experience of not being taken seriously. Conversations about home and auto repairs, computers, video games, and other subjects traditionally dominated by men are often reduced to patronizing displays of sexist assumptions.

These assumptions also factor heavily into a woman's career trajectory. Whereas a man's credentials are often taken at face value, a woman's credentials are often subjected to greater scrutiny. It's not that a woman can't demonstrate her qualifications; it's that she often has to work harder to prove herself. That's energy that men don't have to expend which they can redirect into other aspects of their career, giving them a leg up.

Mind IS the Gap

The examples above are just some of the ways that stereotypes influence the kinds of decisions that people make and the kind of obstacles they encounter.

How much of an impact do these social forces have on the choices that men and women make when it comes to choosing a career, demanding raises and promotions, and taking time off to care for children and other dependents? It's impossible to say for certain. But if they're strong enough to drive men to put 11.5% more effort into their careers and women 11.5% less it's not hard to see how we might end up with a 23% wage gap. Even if not all of the gender pay gap can be attributed to social forces, it's clear that a great deal of it can be.

So while you can argue that the wage gap is a product of the different choices that men and women make, they are not making those choices on a level playing field. Men and women are held up to different -- indeed, often diametrically opposed -- standards, and those standards are bound to have a dramatic impact on the choices that they make. Men are incentivized to be ambitious, assertive, competitive, successful providers and women are incentivized to be nurturing, supportive, cooperative, not too successful, and willing and eager to stay home and take care of their children.

Men and women are defined by their choices, and the choices they make take place in a social context of family, friends, and potential romantic partners. To be a good man or a good woman often requires one to make a sacrifice, either in terms of time and effort or career prospects. Those stereotypes are changing, but they are likely to be with us for a while to come.


There doesn't have to be a conspiracy to keep women down; there doesn't need to be any active sexism for the gender pay gap to manifest. You could do a hundred investigations and never find a single instance of discriminatory pay and it wouldn't make a whit of difference. All that needs to happen is for culture to create two different stereotypes, one that encourages men to be ambitious and competitive and one that encourages women to be modest and cooperative, and men and women, who are only trying to be the best people they can be, will automatically produce a wage gap all by themselves.

How Has Gender Polarization Affected Your Life?

Do You Ever Modify Your Behavior to Conform to Expectations About Your Gender?

See results

Further Reading

Pay Equity and Discrimination - Institute for Women's Policy Research

Gender Polarization - Wikipedia

© 2015 j-u-i-c-e


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