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Even with similar qualifications, women spend time on tasks that lead to lower pay than men

A woman in a suit standing between two men in an office building
Reuters/Eric Thayer
Equal opportunity?
By Allison Schrager
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Since most pay raises happen in the first 15 years of your career, landing the right job early on is critical. But just getting your foot in the door is not enough. The tasks you do at work, and the skills you learn early on, determine your pay trajectory for years to come. According to new research, women spend more time on tasks that set them up for lower-paid careers.

Economists Paul Sullivan and Todd and Ralph Stinebrickner (brothers) tracked the first 10 years of work experience for graduates of Berea College in Kentucky. They collected data on demographics, pay, tasks performed on the job, college major, and grades. They separated job tasks into three categories: People (talking, persuading, supervising, following orders), information (gathering and analyzing data), and objects (moving things, working with machines).

The economists observe that men and women come out of college with similar wages. But over time wages diverge—men earn 22% more, on average, nine to 10 years after graduation. The study attempts to explain what accounts for the divergence. They estimate that college major—women tended to major in education and men in business and science—accounts for around a quarter of the gender wage gap. Grades, meanwhile, have almost no impact: women tend to have higher GPAs but lower earnings.

Even among men and women with same major, a wage gap emerges over time. The researchers reckon that this is largely due to what people do on the job. Regardless of what they study, men spend more time on high-skill information tasks while women end up doing more people-oriented tasks. The study suggests that what you do on the job can have more of an impact on earnings than your college major.

It is critical to get the right experience early in your career. A history of working with information appears extremely valuable. The economists estimate that performing one extra year of high-skilled information work increases wages, a decade after graduation, by nearly 20%. If women had spent equal time on high-skill information tasks as men, it would’ve reduced the gender wage gap by 45%.

The data only measures wages the first 10 years out of college. In those years, men and women work similar hours. Later in life, the gap likely gets worse—research shows that having children penalizes women more than men and these differences grow over time.

The study by Sullivan and the Stinebrickners suggests that the tasks you do early in your career can impact your earnings for years. And since women end up performing lower-earning tasks, this puts them on a path of lower earnings for the rest of their careers.

Some of the gender wage gap remains unexplained, but what we know about the other factors behind it are addressable. To close the gap, companies could make more of an effort to assign women to highly valued information tasks, or reward them more for their people skills.

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