Gender pay gaps continue to persist in many countries, despite direct intervention by governments, regulators, and companies alike. So why does this apparent gender pay inequality continue? A recent German study examined some of the underlying mechanisms relating to perceptions of fair pay and found that both men and women held the belief that lower pay for women was fair. These beliefs appear to be formed and ‘legitimized’ based on people’s experiences of pay inequality in their own occupations and experiencing more value placed on the input of men in the workplace.
Key Topics: Gender pay gap; Fair compensation; Performance evaluation; Pay inequality
Title of Reviewed Article: Why Should Women Get Less? Evidence on the Gender Pay Gap from Multifactorial Survey Experiments
Researchers: Katrin Auspurg (University of Munich), Thomas Hinz (University of Konstanz), and Carsten Sauer (Radboud University Nijmegen).
Publication: American Sociological Review, 2017, Vol. 82 No. 1, pp. 179–210.
Setting the Scene
Differences in pay between men and women have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with companies feeling greater pressure from governments, interest groups, and employees, to reduce existing pay inequality. Research suggests that action is indeed needed, with sources indicated the gender pay gap is above 10% in many Western societies (Blau & Kahn, 2007; Eurostat, 2015; Ridgeway, 2011), and in some cases much higher (e.g. Germany and UK).
Despite greater scrutiny and intervention, gender pay inequality has been slow to decrease (Akchurin & Lee, 2013), and there has been much debate as to why such a pronounced pay gap continues to exist, with some suggesting that it is, to some extent, the result of discrimination (Abbott 2005). Expanding on this, an interesting proposition examined by the current study is that women themselves may view this pay gap as fair, and as such facilitate its persistence.
Individuals typically compare themselves with those similar to themselves (e.g. Major & Testa 1989), and so women may have lower pay expectations and perceive their pay as fair if they primarily benchmark themselves against other women (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001), who more commonly than men, work in professions and industries where pay levels are lower (Charles & Grusky, 2004). Consistent with this, several studies have shown women to have lower pay expectations than men (e.g. Bylsma & Major, 1994).
Furthermore, research lends some support to the idea that the input of women in the workplace may be perceived as being of less value to that of men, and therefore meriting less pay (e.g. Berger, Wagner, & Webster, 2014), with men more commonly expected to be more competent in important tasks than women (e.g. Correll & Ridgeway, 2003; Thebaud, 2015). Such perceptions may also color performance evaluations, to the extent that performance may be evaluated in a way that validates individuals’ perceptions and harsher standard may be applied to women (Foschi, 2000; Foschi, Lai, & Sigerson 1994).
How the research was conducted
This study was carried out using a survey method, which consisted of participants evaluating short descriptions (vignettes) relating to the fairness of compensation given to male and female employees who were described using labor market characteristics e.g. education and experience. Male and female employees were characterized by the same (labor market) characteristics. The study included various conditions in which participants were given different amounts of information relating to employees.
In total, 1,604 participants evaluated 26,207 vignettes. Participants were sourced from the general population in Germany. Participants were approximately 50% male and 50% female.
For each vignette, participants were asked to rate the fairness of earnings on an 11-point scale. Participants were also asked for details relating to their own sociodemographics and labor market experience.
Supplementary information was also collected by the researchers, relating to actual gender pay ratios and the proportion of female employees in different occupations.
Key Research Findings
95% of both male and female participants specified their belief that gender should not be a factor in compensation determination.
No difference between the perceptions of fair earnings was found between the genders, i.e. women were not found to have lower fair earnings expectations than men. As such, the same-gender referents hypothesis, which states that women have lower standards regarding what constitutes fair compensation, was not supported by the results.
However, both men and women were found to equally favor male employees in terms of fair earnings, such that it was seen as fair for men with similar characteristics as women to have higher earnings. Where participants had experienced gender pay differences in their own job, this perception of men receiving higher earnings as fair was greater. Participants on average determined fair compensation for women to be 92% of that paid to equally qualified men.
When more information was provided on employees in the vignettes, no significant change was observed in this gender bias.
Some evidence was found to suggest the presence of a double standard regarding job performance evaluation, with performance being interpreted in a gender specific way, such that less importance was placed on high- and low-performance information relating to women.
Various factors, aside from gender, were found to increase the likelihood of employees being perceived as underpaid, and these included age, educational level, and working in a high-prestige occupation.
The results suggest that genuine gender discrimination does exist, but that this discrimination is perpetrated by both men and women, with both genders similarly considering lower pay for women to be fair, even when women have the same labor market characteristics as men. The ‘just’ fair earnings for women vs men of 92% is broadly consistent with the pay gap found in many Western countries.
The results indicate that just pay expectations held by men and women are learned through their experiences of the labor market, such that individuals develop social constructions of status where gender is connected to beliefs about performance and fair rewards (Berger & Fişek 2006), and that these subtle gender discrimination and internalized inequality mechanisms can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.
Further support was found for double standards in relation to performance, with performance seemingly more relevant in the assessment of fair pay for men, while performance was less important in peoples’ evaluation of women’s pay. High performance of women was less appreciated therefore, although conversely, low performance was seen as more acceptable.
Organizational and Reward Implications
The results of this study indicate that gender pay discrimination continues because, at least in part, it is tolerated by women, who are those most disadvantaged by it. The similar beliefs of both men and women which lead to this disadvantaging of women are likely long held, entrenched, and self-fulfilling, and therefore are resistant to change (Ridgeway & Correll, 2004), which suggests why interventions relating to gender pay have not been more successful.
Interestingly, this study suggests that increasing the transparency around gender pay gaps may in fact further reinforce beliefs on the fairness of gender pay differences. Rather than focusing on gender pay differences, the researchers advocate a strategy of employing more women into high status senior positions, who can act as role models for other women and so that women and men can experience competent women in senior positions with greater frequency. It is through this exposure, the researchers suggest, that beliefs about the value of women in the workplace can be changed. Some companies have already begun to employee such a strategy, through quotas on female hiring.
Similarly, ‘women friendly’ benefits policies, while admirable, may also have the unintended consequence of reinforcing segregated beliefs about the roles of men and women, and confirm beliefs that women have less commitment and status. Companies should focus on creating equal opportunities for men and women such that both genders feel there is a level playing field, rather than constructing further discrimination through such mechanisms as ‘women only’ working groups and policies. Meeting ‘negative’ discrimination with ‘positive’ discrimination is likely to do more to reinforce stereotyped beliefs.
This study provides valuable insight into some of the underlying mechanism associated with gender pay differences, and why members of a disadvantaged group participate in their own discrimination. This study highlights the complexity of gender pay equality and further research is encouraged to help build our understanding of this area from a long-term perspective, focusing on pay and gender distribution within roles and across companies.
Source Article: Auspurg, K., Hinz, T., & Sauer, C. (2017). Why Should Women Get Less? Evidence on the Gender Pay Gap from Multifactorial Survey Experiments. American Sociological Review, 82(1), 179–210.
Published by: American Sociological Association
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