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The key to closing the gender pay gap may be closer than you think

Women often out-earn men early in their careers

Women often out-earn men early in their careers due to higher education levels, yet a pay gap soon appears and grows wider as workers age. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/kzenon

Want to avoid gender pay gaps? The solution starts (and mostly ends) with your mate.

Economist Patricia Cortés is an expert on the gender pay gap. If you ask her advice on how to avoid a gender pay gap in your own life, her answer is surprisingly close to home. Actually, it’s in your home: "If I’m honest, my advice is to marry a man that is willing to both support your career and think of household responsibilities as his as much as yours."

Ouch. "Marry well" was not the policy strategy Cortés expected to discover in her recent extensive review study on what drives the gender pay gap. She’s an associate professor of markets, public policy and law at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who worked with her longtime collaborator, Jessica Pan, associate professor of economics at the National University of Singapore.

Women’s lower pay has been stubbornly consistent, the gap hovering around 25% the last 30 years, despite huge demographic changes. Women are now more likely to attend college and graduate school than men, meaning that women often roll into the labor market out-earning men. Yet a pay gap soon appears and grows wider and wider as workers age, and is now widest among the most skilled jobs. (It was previously the widest among low-skilled jobs.) "It hasn’t changed much in a long time," Cortés says.

The likely culprits

She and Pan gathered peers’ data and ran through the likely culprits: Could it be that couples prioritize the career of the higher earner? Nope. Even among women who are breadwinners, the woman usually sacrifices her career. Could it be that women are simply missing out on a few years of career advancement while child-rearing, and that permanently prevents catching up? Nope.

In women, "you see these big drops around the birth of the first kid," Cortés says. This is unsurprising: Pregnancy and breastfeeding and toddler insanity easily consume dozens of months per child. "But their income never converges back to where the men are."

The cost of household labor

At first glance, children seem the culprit. Pan and Cortés found that an astounding two-thirds of the gender earnings gap is attributable to children, and not work-based factors like, say, discriminatory pay. Further delving, though, sussed out that children themselves are not the issue. "We find that so much depends on how, within a household, responsibilities are divided," Pan says. "It’s not that kids are the cause of the gap, but that the set of responsibilities that come with kids amplifies it."

Translation: Men are dumping household labor on women and trotting off to work.

The math is particularly brutal for women who have children spread out over more than three to four years (which easily extends their years of heavy, unpredictable household labor to a decade, if not two), and in jobs that require long hours, because the benefits of logging those extra hours have risen over time — think tenure or partnership at a law firm.

"Yes, we could think about policies to change this, but really ... the best support you can have is a husband who is willing to take a big share of the household work," Cortés says.

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