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Is a bias toward perceived masculinity what drives higher wages?

An interesting study recently came out in the journal "Gender and Society." Researchers from McGill University tracked data about Canadians' earnings, sexual orientation and relationship status and found that gay men who have partners earn an average of 5 percent less than heterosexual men with partners. Moreover, lesbians with partners tend to earn about 8 percent more than heterosexual women with partners.

If you presume for a moment that lesbians tend to be perceived as more masculine than straight women, you can see a pattern emerging. That pattern solidifies when you consider their results as a whole. There appears to be a pretty regimented hierarchy among Canadian wage-earners, and it goes in this order:

  • Straight men
  • Gay men
  • Lesbian women
  • Straight women

The Canadian numbers are interesting because Canada legalized same-sex marriage 10 years ago, providing a full decade's worth of easy-to-access census data. They're also interesting because the same trend exists in the United States, according to the Atlantic.

For example, a 2007 study by the Williams Institute revealed a major pay gap: On average, gay and bisexual men earned, on average, between 10 and 32 percent less than similarly situated heterosexuals. The pay hierarchy has been demonstrated elsewhere, too.

In Canada, LGBT people are almost twice as likely as heterosexuals to have a bachelor's degree. While it's a myth that the vast majority of LGBT people are high earners, it's true that their level of education means they're somewhat over-represented in the most highly paid occupations, at least in Canada.

Unfortunately, that may be part of the problem. The McGill researchers note that salary decisions in the highest-paying jobs are more likely to be based on performance pay and on a qualitative sense of the employee's worth. Qualitative evaluations, however, are prone to unconscious bias.

In contrast, the researchers found that public-sector workers didn't experience the same pay hierarchy. This may be because government agencies are more likely to have official mandates to avoid discrimination, which often result in the adoption of quantitative performance reviews. In Canada, the public sector also enjoys higher unionization rates, and union contracts often specify rigid pay scales that make it harder for bias to come into play.

Ultimately, unconscious biases are hard to track, and the researchers hesitate to claim the pay gap is the result of discrimination. The study does serve to highlight the connection between gender and anti-gay bias. 

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