Why Women Make Less than Men

Citing an oft-used U.S. Census  Bureau statistic that women earn 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn, presidential hopeful and California Senator Kamala Harris said that if elected, she would end gender pay discrimination by requiring companies to disclose salary data to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and secure an “equal pay certification.”

Companies that fail her criteria would be fined 1 percent of their profits for every 1 percent wage gap after adjusting for experience and performance. These fines are estimated to add $180 billion to government coffers over a decade and would be used to offset the cost of universal paid family and medical leave policies, which she also supports.

We don’t question that women should receive equal pay for equal work. After all, who could argue against the moral principle of treating people fairly and equally?  But Harris ought to have done her homework because there’s ample scholarly research that shows that virtually the entire disparity between men’s and women’s earnings can be attributed to factors such as choice of occupation, level of education, field of study, number of hours worked, and even motherhood.  A brief by PRI President Sally Pipes cited the following research:

  • The Impact of Career Choice on Female Earnings

A paper published by Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn shows that half of the wage gap between men’s and women’s pay can be attributed to the jobs and fields that men and women choose.  Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics strongly support Blau’s and Kahn’s calculations. [1] Among the most common occupations for women, according to BLS, are secretary and administrative assistant,  elementary and middle school teacher, and nursing, psychiatric, and home health aide.[2]  In short, women earn less than men because they are in fields that pay less than the fields men occupy.

  • Time and Experience Matter More than Gender

The difference between male and female workers also extends to factors like experience and hours worked. According to Blau and Kahn, more than 14 percent of the gender pay disparity in 2010 flowed from differences in experience between men and women.[3] Historically, women have worked fewer years and fewer hours. BLSs’ Time-Use Survey reveals that the average employed male put in 5 percent more time on the job than the average employed female in 2015. In fact, in a 2014 paper, sociologists Youngjoo Cha of Indiana University and Kim Weeden of Cornell University found that, between 1979 and 2007, 10 percent of the gender wage gap was attributable to the growth of male-dominated “overwork.”[4] 

  • Motherhood
    Women with children often spend less time working — sacrificing work experience and productivity gains in the process. These sacrifices are reflected in the wage gap between mothers and non-mothers.  University of Massachusetts sociologist Michelle Budig estimated that women experience a 6.7 percent wage penalty, on average, for every child they have.[5] And much of the so-called “motherhood penalty,” she found, came from reductions in the number of hours worked. In many cases, mothers affirmatively choose to work fewer hours in order to devote more time and energy to raising their children. According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of working mothers prefer to work part-time. Nearly 90 percent of mothers believe that full-time work is less-than-ideal for children.[6]

While these studies provide solid evidence that career choice, experience, hours worked, and motherhood explain much of the earnings differences between men and women, we don’t mean to suggest that gender pay discrimination doesn’t exist. But this research and others like it suggest that the wage gap isn’t simply the result of deliberate gender bias on the part of employers. Even if there were no sex discrimination in the workplace, there would still be a significant gap between the earnings of men and women.

For proponents of pay-equity reform like Harris, only when women earn an exact 1:1 ratio as men will these activists be satisfied. As Pipes notes in her brief, the gender earnings ratio says nothing about a more valuable kind of equality — the kind that ensures that women enjoy the same freedom as men to pursue their chosen profession, to allocate their time as they see fit, to raise a family, and to earn an education.  “It’s this second form of equality that is truly worth defending. . .. Far from being evidence of social dysfunction, the ratio. . . suggest that our nation’s women are more empowered than ever to build careers suited to their own individual needs, preferences, and values. That’s not a moral failing — it’s a hard-won victory.”

Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of Pacific Research Institute.



[1] U.S. Department of Labor, “25 Most common occupations for employed women by selected characteristics (2014 annual averages),” accessed September 27, 2016. https://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/25mostcommon_occs_employ_women_txt.htm.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “May 2015 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates,” Occupational Employment Statistics, accessed September 27, 2016. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm.

[3] Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Khan, “The Gender Wage Gap: Extent, Trends, and Explanations,” 73.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Michelle J. Budig, “The Fatherhood Bonus and The Motherhood Penalty: Parenthood and the Gender Gap in Pay,” Third Way, September 2, 2014, https://www.thirdway.org/report/the-fatherhood-bonus-and-the-motherhood-penalty-parenthood-and-the-gender-gap-in-pay.

[6] Kim Parker, “Women, Work and Motherhood: A Sampler of Recent Pew Research Survey Findings,” Pew Research Center, April 13, 2012, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/04/13/women-work-and-motherhood/.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top