Many articles, such as this one, report a significant wage gap between men and women of 15% or more as evidence of discrimination. On the other hand, some sources, such as this one, claim that the gap can be explained by factors such as the following:

  • Men being more career obsessed
  • Men working more hours
  • Differences in experience

Is there a significant difference in wages between men and women in first world countries that is not due to factors relevant to the job?

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    +Notice that even if the above mentioned factors partially explain this gap, the question remains why these factors exist in the first place. For example, men being more career obsessed and more experienced is very likely a consequence of society, not of biology (at least partially). Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 12:03
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    @Konrad. I agree, but by the same token, I don't think that companies should be punished if the reasons for paying women less are related to the job. If they pay women less because of some sort of discriminatory bias, that is wrong. But if women really do work fewer hours and have less experience, then I don't see anything wrong in paying men more. Instinctively I think there is probably more to it, though, as I’ve worked with some pretty amazing women who made less than some real d-bag men. Yours could potentially be a separate question about social convention in the workplace.
    – Dogmafrog
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 12:11
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    Pro tip: don't take articles as primary sources. Popular press ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS mischaracterizes research on EVERY topic.
    – horatio
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 14:48
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    It is not political to note that popular press misreports on science on a colossal scale. This is not controversial. I always go to the primary source whenever possible, and I recommend anyone with any intellectual curiosity, such as the OP, do the same.
    – horatio
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 19:44
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    Given, that the salaries are "controlled" by Adam Smith's Invisible Hand, I have doubts that word "underpaid" is proper one. That's what the market chooses to pay.
    – vartec
    Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 12:48

5 Answers 5


I can only give an example for developed countries. In the Ny Times article Why the Earnings Gender Gap in Business? Women Work Less from 2009 they cite research on MBA couples, and it's argued that wages remain largely the same among MBA holders up until the first child. After which most mothers (who continue their careers) are affected more than fathers when trying to balance motherhood and work.

Similarly in We did it! - The rich world’s quiet revolution: women are gradually taking over the workplace from the Economist also from 2009 argues that women who do well in their careers in their 20's, disappear in their 30's because they have to choose between motherhood and the career.

In the same issue of the Economist they give the statistics in the article Female power - Across the rich world more women are working than ever before. Coping with this change will be one of the great challenges of the coming decades:

Another American study, this time of women who left work to have children, found that all but 7% of them wanted to return to work. Only 74% managed to return, and just 40% returned to full-time jobs.

There are other differences between men and women in modern times that should create a shift in wages. In Sweden (my home country) 60% of university students are women according to the national university review of 2008 (in Swedish, sorry), and women typically do better than men in school {citation needed?}. I would argue that if university graduates earn more than non-graduates in the same job then womens wages will progress to the point where they overtake men if the above mentioned issue isn't a factor.

Some support that things have changed for women since 1970 was recently shown in Marginal revolution (a blog by two well published economists) where they plotted GDP in America together with the median wage by gender. They showed that while womens wages closely follow GDP, males wages have stagnated. If true this would mean that women are closing the income gap on males at the rate that the GDP changes.

More recently in 2015 a German newspaper reported on a German study that women work 23% fewer hours than men, with a wage gap of 22%. The work week difference of 7 hours doubles to a difference of 15 hours once there's children. It also says that of women with children 70% work part-time twice the amount of those without. Interestingly for men in Germany the change happens in the other direction where 6% of men with children work part-time, as opposed to 10% of those without. My German isn't good enough to read the original study for the researchers thoughts, but it seems to suggest that the wage gap in Germany is explained by the number of hours worked as opposed to wage discrimination.

I don't have a better answer than this, but I hope I've added a some food for others.


  • Women start earning less when they get children because they value parenting more.

  • If we are merely concerned with women as a whole demographic being underpaid then I would expect that they are going to rise above men as a whole demographic as we are graduating women in larger numbers and with better grades, which is a fairly recent happening.

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    @Cawas - I'm saying the references I have are saying the largest discrepancy in pay between educated people in the developed world seem to be due to women giving birth, and then spending more time with the children rather than at work. It's entirely possible to argue that it's still discrimination that the society doesn't allow for women to follow that path without a pay cut, I think one of the Economist articles argued that while saying Sweden (my country) that allows flex time in the work place does a lot better in that regard.
    – Kit Sunde
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 15:06
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    @Cawas - Yes, you are right. There are of course cases of blatant sexism where courts have ruled in favor of the woman, but it appears that the the lower pay for women isn't systematic sexism.
    – Kit Sunde
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 15:50
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    This really boils down to if you think working fewer hours is evidence of the pay gap, or just difference choices. If women want to work more hours but are unable to for some reason then it's part of the "wage gap".
    – user18902
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 15:12
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    @mojo No that wouldn't be a wage gap, that's just trying to hard. If both groups get paid the same per hour, but one group isn't afforded the same hours of work it would be a "working hours gap." As a (small) employer the whole idea to hire employees but disallowing some of them from voluntarily working hard is completely bizarre.
    – Kit Sunde
    Commented Sep 26, 2015 at 8:19
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    @MoJo I understand how you could make that case, but the "wage gap" as far as I understand it is about "equal pay for equal work". All other things being equal if someone works less hours and their take home is less than a full time employee, but hourly wages are the same, I personally wouldn't call that person "underpaid". Anyways this is more a case for /r/feminism to argue, I understand your point though I'm just not personally comfortable including it under the "wage gap" term because I think it's misleading.
    – Kit Sunde
    Commented Sep 26, 2015 at 13:02

The short answer is YES -- while some of the wage gap can be explained by choices, not all of it can.

According to the American Association of University Women:

After accounting for college major, occupation, industry, sector, hours worked, workplace flexibility, experience, educational attainment, enrollment status, GPA, institution selectivity, age, race/ethnicity, region, marital status, and number of children, a 5 percent difference in the earnings of male and female college graduates one year after graduation was still unexplained.

A similar analysis of full-time workers 10 years after college graduation found a 12 percent unexplained difference in earnings. [emphasis in original]

Much more information, including information about the pay gap in many different countries can be found by following the links on this page from Radford University.

A chart from the U.S. Senate breaks down the pay gap into explained (by factors such as hours worked and experience) and unexplained. This is the Government Accounting Office report that explains where that chart comes from.

You can also see similar analysis in What Do Wage Differentials Tell Us about Labor Market Discrimination? from the National Bureau of Economic Research. A similar analysis from a nonprofit working to expand opportunities for women in business found similar results in 2010.

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    "5 percent difference in the earnings of male and female" could be explained by reason given by OP. Moreover, one could question the neutrality of an organisation named American Association of University Women.
    – Zonata
    Commented May 21, 2013 at 2:02
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    5% unexplained doesn't prove a gap, it could be they simply haven't identified/measured the relevant factor. One that is no doubt relevant and yet I have never seen numbers for: How many fathers with high-travel jobs vs how many mothers with high-travel jobs? Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 2:02
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    Even if their study were able to completely and accurately adjust for all of the factors related to how well men and women do their jobs, it would still not account for, say, if women, on average, simply didn't negotiate for salaries as aggressively as their male counterparts (and, as far as I know, this claim is at least made pretty commonly.)
    – reirab
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 21:12
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    Most studies seem to ignore some differences because they want to promote the idea that what you get paid somehow correlates to competence. Allowing for height, at board level women earn more than men, possibly because they can get away with higher heels - livescience.com/5552-taller-people-earn-money.html Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 17:13

The statistics of the matter pretty much agree (at least here in the UK) that women are statistically paid less than men.

This December 2010 post from the ONS describes the relevant statistics of the matter here in the UK.

I can't speak much about the reasons behind the gender wage gap without being too speculative, but one interesting paragraph from the article leaps out:

The scale and direction of the gender pay gap varies according to age. For instance in the 22–29 age group, full-time women earned 2.1 per cent more than full-time men and part-time women earned 1.7 per cent more than part-time men. The largest pay gaps in favour of men for full-time and part-time employees were in the 50–59 age group at 17.0 per cent and 17.4 per cent respectively. The largest pay gap for all employees, 27.4 per cent, was seen in both the 40–49 and 50–59 age groups.

This suggests that the pay gap is directly related to age, and among younger people is largely disappearing.

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    Yes, women are statistically paid less than men. But men are far more likely to work dangerous jobs, far more likely to accept odd working hours as a condition of their employment, far more likely to describe their job as the "#1 most important thing in their lives", and more apt to say than women that a lack of career success reflects a lack of personal success. Ceci & Williams released a new study looking at academia just recently which further showcased how important the choices women made were to their career trajectories.
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 18:35
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    Perfectly sensibly biologically, they hold different values than men, so the market rewards them accordingly.
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 18:35
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    @billare. I think most of these stats compare men and women working comparable jobs, so the different jobs thing probably doesn't count
    – Dogmafrog
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 18:43
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    @Dogmafrog No, that's not true. Within comparable jobs, women are more likely to accept less pay for "work-life" balance, and less likely to sign up for strange hours like night-shifts or half and halfs. They are far more likely than men on the same, possibly lucrative career tracks to drop out of them in order to marry and have babies. Skeptic, have you actually read the research? See also this aforementioned Ceci & Wiliams PNAS paper.
    – Uticensis
    Commented Mar 16, 2011 at 22:08
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    sure, women make less per annum on average than do men, but that's not the whole story (though of course feminists make it out as such so as to claim discrimination...). Fact is the average hourly wage for women in any specific job needs to be taken into account, and when you do that there's on average little or no difference (and women may make more). It's simply a matter of women on average working shorter hours and going for jobs with lower hourly rates. A secretary workin 32 hours a week just doesn't make the same income as does her boss working 120.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 10, 2011 at 6:55

According to this article in Time magazine, unmarried, childless women under 30 who live in cities earn more money than men in the same position. They postulate the cause is a greater number of women earning college degrees. Doesn't directly answer the question, but interesting, nonetheless.


This answer only relates to one first world country, Sweden, but it does provide a tangible case. Sadly, I could only find the source below published in Swedish, but since there were many answers referring primarily to newspapers I wanted to provide an answer using a primary source.


This report uses statistics from Statistiska Centralbyrån (Central Bureau of Statistics, a government authority) and Medlingsinstitutet (Swedish National Mediation Office, also a government authority), and is published by the latter.

On page 18 of the report, we can see the weighted statistics for 2014. It breaks women's pay down as a percent of men's pay by sector. The orange line is all sectors, the peach colored lines are private and public sectors respectively. Under private, we have the categories labourer and I'm not certain of the proper translation, but non-labourers essentially. Under public sector, it's broken down over municipality, county and state level.

The weighing takes age, profession, education, and working hours. After this weighing, women earn about 95% of what men earn on average. Private non-labour is by far the worst (91.9%) and municipality is by far the best (99.5%), both straying away from the average quite a bit more than the other sectors.

It should also be mentioned that the report's second chapter discusses a decrease in differences since 2008; 2.4 points as the unweighted average (between 1.4 and 4.2 depending on sector, the lower score being private labour and higher one being state level). The segregation by profession has also decreased. The report cautions comparing the values too much, though, as a different method was used prior to 2014.

The report doesn't further discuss possible reasons for the unexplained difference after weighing.

So, to summarize: Yes, women are, on average, underpaid in at least one first world country. It does seem fairly safe to assume this would be the case for many other first world countries as well, though that is of course speculation on my part as I provide no sources for that. Along with Martha F's answer, we at least have two.

These reports are created yearly and more of them can be found here: http://www.mi.se/publicerat/loneskillnader-mellan-kvinnor-och-man/

  • This doesn't answer the question though. The report that you describe (I don't read Swedish, so I'm not going to try to read it) doesn't address other explanations like men being more career obsessed and less family flexible. Also, the question was talking about gaps of 15% or more. You're talking about differences averaging about 5% (from a low of .5% to a high of 8.1%). By the standards of the question, this is virtual equality.
    – Brythan
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 22:26
  • @Brythan On the 15% or more point: I don't see that mentioned as a threshold in the question, just one extreme point compared to another to set the stage. Beyond that, we provide the evidence that exists. Are we supposed to ignore data between 0% and 15%? If not, I don't see the point of that reasoning. Then "it doesn't answer the question"; I agree that it doesn't the "first world countries" part since this is just a single country, but the question is "are women underpaid" and this data shows a difference after weighing important factors. (cont.) Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 22:42
  • @Brythan While not every relevant factor has been weighed in, ones that can be measured in a good way are. I don't think measuring for career obsession fits into this data model, nor am I sure what a good way to compensate for that would be. Besides, does it matter? Does career obsession lead to higher pay when you're the same age, have the same tenure, the same experience, the same education? Not even sure how you would define "career obsession" in this context. Until we get a good measurement of that, this is the data we have to go by. I don't see why we should consider it nullified. Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 22:46
  • @Brythan I do think it is fair criticism to say that the data doesn't perfectly compensate for everything though - it is what it is, and it's good that you point out any flaws and limits the model has. Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 22:56

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