The puzzle of the high-end gender pay gap

February 26, 2020

By Vancouver Sun |

Three distinguished female economists believe the pay gap at the top of companies and government has less to do with overt discrimination and more to do with women’s decisions.

Women now account for roughly six of 10 of those enrolled in higher education. In five decades, they’ve almost matched the number of men in the North American workplace. Each decade, the wage gap between women and men narrows.

But women’s successes aren’t showing up to the same extent in the highest-paying careers. The University of B.C.’s Nicole Fortin and colleagues have found just 17 per cent of Canada’s top one per cent of earners, those who make more than $230,000 annually, are female.

And a recent Vancouver Sun series on B.C.’s public-sector salaries discovered twice as many men as women earn more than $150,000 a year from taxpayers. Of the 50 highest paid public-sector workers in the province, those making more than $500,000, only 12 per cent are women.

Many continue to agonize over the gender pay gap, with former U.S. president Barack Obama among those who have said it’s “wrong.”

However, three distinguished female economists, including Fortin, believe the gulf at the top has less to do with overt discrimination and more to do with women’s decisions.

Harvard University economics professor Claudia Goldin says it’s important to fight discriminatory employment practices. But she says they’re only a small part of the puzzle. “It is also true that the time demands of many jobs can explain much of the pay difference, a finding that has sobering implications.”

Goldin, who has devoted her career to gender issues, is among a growing number of economists who point out women tend to choose jobs with “temporal flexibility” — in large part because of parental responsibilities.

“The data shows that women disproportionately seek jobs — including full-time jobs — that are more likely to mesh with family responsibilities, which, for the most part, are still greater for women than for men,” says Goldin, noting women want jobs that offer the ability to adapt hours and rearrange shifts.

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