If I became a man, would you pay me more?

A new study looks at wage discrimination among transgender people -- and finds that becoming a woman might not be the best thing to do for your career.

Published October 7, 2008 6:29PM (EDT)

OK, OK. We all know that on average, American men make more than American women. We all know the two sides of the debate over why this is: Some say that women pick less competitive, lower-paying careers, and others claim women are victims of discrimination. And I dare say that we all also know something else: Both arguments have some truth.

But Friday's Time magazine featured an article about a study that took a very creative approach to figuring out how much discrimination might be at play. Researchers from the University of Chicago and New York University looked at the experiences of transgender people in the workforce -- that is, people who had either transitioned from male to female or female to male -- and analyzed how their gender switch affected their pay. The result, as Time puts it, "suggests that raw discrimination still remains potent in U.S. companies."

To be more specific, the study's authors found that even after controlling for factors like education levels, MTFs (male-to-female) made, on average, 32 percent less after they transitioned. FTMs (female-to-male), on the other hand, earned an average of 1.5 percent more than they'd been getting before they made the switch.

Granted, part of me wonders whether some of the difference might be caused by the discrimination faced by transgender people in general -- as the article points out, it can be easier for a FTM to pass as "real" because he doesn't have to deal with the residual large body frame inherited by MTFs. That might partially account for why men who want to change gender wait, on average, 10 years longer than women who want to become men.

But still, anecdotal though they may be, it's fascinating to hear stories from transgender people about reactions from people who didn't realize what they'd done. A FTM lawyer remembers how a co-worker had complimented the firm's boss for firing Susan and hiring "the new guy," commenting that Susan had been incompetent and that the new guy was "just delightful." A FTM neurobiology professor told the Wall Street Journal that he overheard a colleague lean over to someone during one of his lectures and say that "Ben Barres' work is much better than his sister's." Cases like that -- where the person commenting didn't even realize that the person had switched genders -- makes the argument about discrimination much more compelling.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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