Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Salary and Gender Identity

Explanations for the wage gap between men and women vary. This topic is fiercely debated between feminists and men's rights activists (MRAs)- with some MRAs going so far as denying that a wage gap even exists. Those who do admit that a wage gap exists, attempt to justify the disparity. Some say that women are paid less than men because women go into "caring" and "nurturing" occupations that pay less than the "dangerous" and "risky" occupations that men go into. Some say that men work harder and longer hours than women and that's why they're paid more. Others say that women take time off to raise children and that accounts for the wage disparity.

On the surface, some of these explanations seem plausible. There are, undoubtedly, some women who choose to take time off of work to raise children and that, in turn, impacts their salaries and career paths. Yet, just as sure as those situations happen, it is also clear that some women are just clearly paid less than men for the same work for the sole reason that they are women. Anecdotally, many women claim that male voices have more authority in the workplace, that women have to work harder to get credit for their work, and that the work of men often gets evaluated more highly than the work of women even if it's of a higher or similar quality. From many women's perspectives, all of these kinds of difficult-to-prove anecdotes add up and at least partly explain why women are paid less than men.

Everyone has their theories, and so what is needed is evidence.

What if, for instance, researchers could control for other, non-discriminatory explanations of the wage gap by comparing the salaries and career trajectories of people who lived first as women and then as men, and vice versa? Two researchers, publishing in the B.E. Journal of Economics and Public Policy did just that. Specifically, they compared the earnings of male-to-female transgender persons and female-to-male transgender persons before and after these people transitioned to the other gender in order to study the "role gender plays in shaping workplace outcomes."

While "common sense" might predict that the earnings of all post-transition transfolk would decrease due to transphobia and bigotry, the researchers found that something else happened. While the earnings of male-to-female transgender persons decreased, the earnings of female-to-males actually increased slightly. That is, those presenting as women saw salary decreases, and those presenting as men saw increases.

The authors report:

"We find that while transgender people have the same human capital after their transitions, their workplace experiences often change radically. We estimate that average earnings for female-to-male transgender workers increase slightly following their gender transitions, while average earnings for male-to-female transgender workers fall by nearly 1/3. This finding is consistent with qualitative evidence that for many male-to-female workers, becoming a woman often brings a loss of authority, harassment, and termination, but that for many female-to-male workers, becoming a man often brings an increase in respect and authority. These findings challenge the omitted variables explanations for the gender pay gap and illustrate the often hidden and subtle processes that produce gender inequality in workplace outcomes."

I would imagine that being someone who has lived life as both a man and woman would give one a very unique and eye-opening perspective on the hidden and difficult-to-prove biases that women face in the workplace. I think that women and men who have always lived their lives as such aren't always aware of how male-ness automatically grants one authority and respect. Catherine Rampell, writing for The New York Times, for instance, recounts one obvious instance of the problem:

"Ben Barres, a female-to-male transgender neuroscientist at Stanford, found that his work was more highly valued after his gender transition. 'Ben Barres gave a great seminar today,' a colleague of his reportedly said, 'but then his work is much better than his sister’s.'

Dr. Barres, of course, doesn’t have a sister in academia."

The "sister" the colleague referred to was Dr. Barres in his previous incarnation as a woman. And, it wasn't until Dr. Barres transitioned to a man that he began to recount instances of sexism "in a series of slights over the years." For instance, his guidance counselor told "Barbara" (Dr. Barre's name as a woman) that she would never get into MIT "even though she had top grades and led the math team." Barbara got into MIT and, once after proudly solving a difficult problem and being the only person in her class to do so, her professor blew her off saying that her "boyfriend must have solved it for [her]."

It's true that Dr. Barre's case is just one anecdote. And the above study is limited as it included only 64 persons. Yet, I think both are good starting points for future research in this area.

Oh, in other news, frequent reader John informed me that oppressed white male Roy Den Hollander's lawsuit against nightclubs who offer "Ladies' Nights" specials was dismissed. What a travesty.

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