Mind the wage gap

A new study finds a way to narrow it: Hire women in senior management positions.

Published August 15, 2006 5:42PM (EDT)

According to the Washington Post, a recent study presented at a sociology conference last Friday "answers for the first time what happens to workers when women break through the glass ceiling." Apparently, what happens is that the wage gap diminishes.

The study, presented Friday at the American Sociological Association conference in Montreal, was based on 1.3 million American workers in 30,000 jobs and 79 metropolitan areas. It showed that American women "earn substantially more money and narrow the long-standing gender gap in income if other women in their workplaces reach the ranks of senior management." In these workplaces, the study found, women earn about 91 percent of men's salaries.

If, however, a workplace increases the number of women in junior management positions, the wage gap remains steady, with women continuing to earn about 81 percent of male salaries.

The study also found that when women hold senior positions, men's salaries decline slightly. The study analysts suggest several possible explanations for this, including that "the gender gap in income is not just because women are underpaid, but because men are overpaid, and the slight decline in men's wages is bringing their salaries into line with actual productivity" and that in order to get pay equality between the genders, "the extra money for women has to come from somewhere, and it partly comes from higher-paid men."

The Post story on the study is worth reading in full because it thoroughly takes apart the findings, breaking down wage difference and patterns according to criteria like the kind of jobs women tend to do vs. jobs that are mostly male, and the discrepancies between "male" and "female" careers.

It also deals upfront with larger gender issues, including the "stereotype in the United States that women who become bosses are ruthless and that they treat female subordinates worse than they treat men" and the counterclaim that hiring more women in senior postitions will lead to a more equitable workplace. The wage gap study, according to the paper, provides the "first empirical evidence that these [workplace equality] advocates are right -- but only when women get to very senior positions."

The story's kicker did not have anything to do with the wage gap study, but it hit me in the gut nonetheless. Apparently, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg addressed the sociology conference where the study was presented and urged attendees to address issues of gender parity at the highest professional levels, noting that since Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement from the court, "I have been all alone in my corner on the bench." Oof.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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