Bridging the (Gender Wage) Gap

Six no-nonsense ways women can close the gender wage gap.

The debate over the gender wage gap has been raging for a very long time, likely dating back to when Rebekah earned fewer shekels for hauling water than did Isaac for herding goats. We’ve all heard that a woman earns about 80 cents for every buck made by a guy. In fact, the AFL-CIO, citing a government report, devotes an entire section of its Web site to remedies for pay discrimination.


But what if, like so many other statistics, this one doesn’t tell the full story? What if you factor in things that men are more likely to do at work that lead to greater financial rewards? Admittedly, these practices read like the Office Handbook From Hell: clock longer hours, relocate to undesirable places, travel extensively, and toil under crummy conditions (think North Sea oil rigs). Companies, desperate to attract workers to fill such jobs, tend to offer higher pay. Men are more likely to take the bait — and reap the rewards.

Then consider the evidence that until kids enter the picture, women earn as much as men — and often even more. Don’t believe it? Check the census data on earnings of never-married men and women. Women don’t hit an income gap until family responsibilities factor into job choices. That’s typically when men agree to take on more onerous work in an attempt to be better providers, and women back off from such tasks in an effort to be more available to the kids.

“The wage gap is not about corporate discrimination but about the division of labor that happens when men and women have children,” says Warren Farrell, author of Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap — and What Women Can Do About It (AMACOM, January 2005). “The biggest misconception is that there’s a wage gap for the same work.”

Farrell’s point is that men’s actions lead to their having more income. Conversely, what women do leads to more balanced lives. But anyone who’s willing can up their earnings by engaging in these tactics. On the other hand, if you’re seeking a life with more sanity, these are the behaviors to avoid.

1. Sign up for a job with bottom-line responsibility

Kathy Vrabeck, president of Activision Publishing, the video-game producer behind Shrek 2 and the Tony Hawk series, says that’s the best piece of advice she could give anyone seeking to move up the financial ranks. Vrabeck had an early glimpse of how this works while at Eli Lilly, where she noticed that R&D was the driving function of big pharma. At Activision, she’s responsible for game development — the function on which the company’s success largely depends. “In any company, it’s the operating jobs, not the staff jobs, that generate revenue,” she says. “A company’s always willing to pay more for people who are willing to take on the responsibility of a line job and the risk that entails.”

2. Find a field that entails financial or emotional risk taking

Even garden-variety venture capitalists can expect to earn between $100,000 and $300,000 a year, according to Of course, if they bet the ranch on an online pet-food supplier, they also risk losing a bundle. Currency traders, real-estate speculators, and many sales executives all gamble that they can use their smarts to make a living. If they’re right, they can clean up. If not, they’ve got nobody but themselves to blame. The market pays a premium for that kind of chutzpah.


3. Work more hours, more weeks, and more years

“Enough!” you say. “Americans already work more hours per year than the rest of the planet!” So true. But if you’re willing to be the alpha dog of wage slaves in your industry, you can expect to be rewarded handsomely. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the average person working 45 hours per week earns 44% more than someone who works 40 hours. Why? The willingness to work more often leads to jobs that pay more per hour. At the upper reaches of a corporation, this can be significant. Top CEOs typically command pay in the super-7-digit range. But they also generally paid their dues with 15-hour days, six days a week, for an average of 20 years. The road to higher pay, alas, is a toll road, with no EZ-Pass for the fast lane.

“Anybody can go to a job with a high-growth business and do well. That’s easy. Go to a really broken business and make your mark. Those are the most rewarding.” — Charlene Begley, CEO of GE Transportation, Rail

4. Be willing to relocate to unsexy places at the company’s behest

Charlene Begley, president and CEO of GE Transportation, Rail, is one of the company’s top executives, overseeing a business worth $2.5 billion. The good news: According to compensation expert David Leach of ECG Advisors LLC, a person in her position typically makes between $600,000 and $1 million a year. The bad news: Her operation is based in Erie, Pennsylvania, two hours from Pittsburgh and smack in the middle of the Great Lakes’ snowbelt. Not that Begley’s complaining. Indeed, as she told a group of GE women executives, the remoteness of the division’s headquarters is a huge plus. “Take tough jobs in distant locations,” Begley advises. Those jobs often lead to bigger positions because they don’t come with the huge support infrastructure of corporate headquarters, giving you a chance to learn more and lead better. And if the company’s on the skids, all the better. “Anybody can go to a job with a high-growth business and do well,” she says. “That’s easy. Go to a really broken business and make your mark. Those are the most rewarding.”

5. Pick technology or hard sciences over the arts or social sciences

In the demanding and high-pressure world of biotech, Lisa Spirio is a pretty rare bird: a PhD in human genetics; the co-founder and R&D director of a promising startup, 3DM Inc., which creates 3-D cell cultures for medical research; and a mother of two. In grad school, Spirio says, about 50% of her peers were women. By the time she reached her postdoctoral studies in cancer biology at MIT, that share had fallen to 30%. Now, she figures, about 20% of her peers are women. It’s a statistic that’s replicated across many scientific and technological fields. For example, in the BLS chart of “20 Occupations That Pay the Most,” 9 were various kinds of engineering jobs. Meanwhile, only 10% of engineering managers are women, although the BLS reported that the wages of women who took high-tech jobs increased more than twice as fast as for their male counterparts. In Spirio’s experience, scientific and technical fields are more meritocratic too. “The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female if you have what it takes to get the job done.”

6. Choose a field where you can’t “check out” at the end of the day

Pamela York Klainer, founder of the consulting firm Power & Money LLC, learned early the risks associated with life on the economic margins. When she was 14, her father, a salaried worker at DuPont, died suddenly of a heart attack, pitching her homemaker mother into a financial tailspin. Klainer vowed never to be so dependent on a paycheck for her well-being. With her husband, Jerry, she built a financial-services firm with 10 employees and $100 million under management. Two years ago, Jerry also died suddenly, leaving Klainer in charge. Far from being able to disengage, or even to take time to properly mourn her loss, she was in the office two days after his funeral, calming panicked employees and attending to clients. It was a terrible ordeal, but she got through it, ultimately increasing the family’s net worth by 25% before selling off the firm and starting her own consulting business. Despite the pain, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Running your own venture is very high stakes,” she says. “When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, it’s beyond awful.”

Klainer is an example of the kind of worker author Farrell refers to as a “7-Eleven” — they never close. “When we can psychologically check out from our work, we call it a job; when we can’t, we call it a career,” he says. Doctors, lawyers, executives, and most knowledge workers (the folks who are what they do) are 7-Eleven. They struggle to leave the office behind, even for vacations, but their commitment generally is repaid financially.

Farrell is eager to point out the ways men and women can up their earnings, but he’s quick to say he doesn’t necessarily endorse the most vexatious behaviors. Ultimately, he’d like to see corporations recognize what they’re asking of workers and find ways — from job sharing to flex-time and other solutions — to make the burden of work less crushing.


And if corporations don’t embrace these changes on their own, they may find workplace reforms thrust upon them when they begin competing for young talent. In a Radcliffe-Harris poll, 70% of men in their twenties said they’d be willing to trade money for a chance to spend more time with their children. The gender wage gap may someday be solved not by legislation but by the best and brightest people simply saying, “Sorry, you can’t pay me enough to take that job.”


About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.