Renowned economist discusses closing the gender salary gap


Isabelle Curtis, News Editor

Gender-neutral work policies are essential for lowering the gender pay gap, renowned economist Dr. Marianne Bertrand told a crowd of 105 in-person and Zoom attendees on March 8 at the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) John A. Hogan Distinguished Lecture.  


The lecture was established in honor of former UNH professor of economics John A. Hogan to promote awareness and understanding of contemporary issues in the American workplace. Bertrand’s presentation “Gender Inequalities in the 21st Century” was not only the first Hogan lecture since the pandemic but it also coincidentally fell on International Women’s Day. 


“Even though the gender gap in earnings is declining, on average, women are having a hard time breaking into the higher parts of the income distribution,” explained Bertrand. In addition to general gender discrimination, Bertrand argued that women’s educational choices and the penalties associated with motherhood are the main reasons for this discrepancy.  


Although women across most developed countries are attending college at a higher rate than men, there is a stark gender distribution between majors. Women are more present in fields with overall lower salaries, such as the humanities. Business and law have evened out in recent years but STEM fields are still largely dominated by men. Not only do STEM jobs have higher salaries but the gender gap in earnings is smaller, according to Bertrand. 


 “What we’re witnessing here is the power of stereotypes, and how stereotypes change our preferences, and may even impact our skill set,” said Bertrand.  


She asserted that the reason women don’t take STEM jobs isn’t because they are less skilled in the field, but because of ingrained gender stereotypes that make women shy away from those careers. Many women also believe they will be happier if they conform to the behaviors expected of them.  


It is because of this situation that women were more severely impacted by the early pandemic quarantine as women-dominated sectors, such as education, were hit. This differs from previous economic recessions where the male-dominated manufacturing industry was the victim of shutdowns. 


“Women lost a lot of ground in terms of labor force participation,” said Bertrand. She explained there is debate whether the remote-labor model will be beneficial to women in the long term as some may no longer have to pay for childcare, or take lower-paying jobs to be near their children’s schools, etc. However, there is concern that women being home will mean all childcare will fall to them. The currently available data from Oct. 2020 shows that women have returned to the workforce but not to pre-pandemic levels.  


Bertrand also discussed how motherhood affects women’s labor participation and earnings.  


“The birth of the first child is essentially a non-event for fathers, and it is a massive, disruptive, long-lasting negative event for mothers,” she said. 


In addition to taking time off work for their child’s birth, many don’t return to the workforce. For those that do, salaries are still lower than their pre-child earnings as they often take lower-paying jobs or their schedules lack flexibility due to their children. Bertrand also explained that gender stereotypes and cultural shame around working mothers keep women from the workforce.  


Bertrand believes the solution to the “mommy penalty” lies in gender-neutral policies. For example, “daddy quotas” —non-transferrable periods of leave reserved for fathers — which may encourage more gender-equal divisions of childcare duties within the household. This would allow mothers to devote more time to paid work.  


“Obviously people are talking a lot about gender. It’s a lot about ‘the world would be a better place if women were in charge’ and ‘we wouldn’t have wars.’ That’s the story of the moment,” said Bertrand. “But the more we go with this kind of narrative, the more we reinforce the idea that men and women are different. So while I understand that gender-neutral policies may have a cost in the near-term, pushing for more general policies is probably what we need to do in the long term.”  

Photo courtesy of Micky Bedell.