Regular readers of economics will know that despite common myths to the contrary, the reality is there isn’t much of an unfair pay gap between genders. As the economy has become more service-based, coupled with increased technology that make domestic work less time-consuming, and ‘women’s lib’, the wage gap that used to exist has narrowed so much that it has equalised. In fact, if you just look at males and females in their 20s and 30s, females earn slightly more. Obviously this tails off in the late 30s and 40s as motherhood becomes the primary driving force in the re-introduction of a wage gap – but it’s not to do with discrimination, it is to do with biology and life choices.

There’s an interesting paper from health economist Heather Brown who observes that single women with a higher BMI (body mass index) tend to earn higher wages than similar women with a lower BMI. Married men also have a wage rate that is positively related to their BMI – the more weight they carry the higher their wages tend to be. The opposite is true for single men and married women – there is a negative correlation between their age rate and BMI – the more weight they carry the lower their wages tend to be.

Why is this? The most likely reason is that being overweight doesn’t disadvantage men in the market for marriage to anything like the same extent that it disadvantages women – but it does encourage women to invest more in their careers to compensate for the disadvantage in the marriage market. Or to put it another way, very attractive slimmer women have a much higher likelihood of marrying financially well off men than overweight women, which means according to Heather Brown’s studies they do not have quite such strong incentives to invest in their careers as women who are disadvantaged in the marriage market.

Studies by Pierre-Andre Chiappori, Sonia Orefice and Climent Quintana-Domeque also show that as a result of this, overweight women are more likely to marry low-income men. If single, heavy women know that a) they are less likely to marry, and b) if they do marry they are more likely to marry a low-income man, it makes sense that there would be a pattern whereby heavier women invest more in their careers.

The flipside of the coin, however, is that slim, attractive women under-investing in their careers because of the expectation of marrying higher-income men may be affecting the ‘pay gap’ statistics – but in a way that amplifies the point made above about the lack of a gender pay gap. That is to say, not only is it the case that there is no gender pay gap due to discriminatory forces, it may well be the case that women in their 20s and 30s are earning slightly more than men even though a significant number of them (those with a lower BMI) are under-investing in their careers due to future marital expectations.

James Knight is the editor of the blog The Philosophical Muser

3 thoughts on “The ‘gender pay gap’ is a non-issue”

  1. Posted 12/02/2016 at 11:27 | Permalink

    Interesting angle. There is also a lot of evidence now that pay, both for men and women, is influenced by perceived attractiveness.
    Today’s announcement that there is to be a published ‘league table’ of firms’ gender pay gaps is terrible news, but sadly typical of this hare-brained government with its sound-bite fixation.
    These figures (a) will not mean what people think they mean (ie discrimination), but will reflect all sorts of extraneous factors (b) will encourage firms to manipulate them in ways which may often penalise women (such as outsourcing low-paid work).
    But it’s almost pointless to argue against this self-righteous virtue-signalling.

  2. Posted 12/02/2016 at 15:53 | Permalink

    All of which stops at a certain point of understanding. All of this near-parity is very well in the tertiary sectors over which “pay gap” obsessives pore, but factoring in what kind of work people do for their money, the world of work favours women massively. Take earnings per hour per unit of effort and the pay gap favours women a little. Factor in risk, danger and hazards and it grows markedly: 94% of workplace deaths, related suicides and injuries affect men. Factor in how much women spend (90% more than they earn, compared to men’s 40% of what they earn, on average) and the taxation gap (men pay 72 of it in total and disproportionately more anyway) and what women take in state benefits and this issue becomes a foul joke. There is no “sexism against women.” It simply cannot exist and never has.

  3. Posted 13/02/2016 at 16:33 | Permalink

    There is another possible explanation.

    The higher earners may have become higher earners because they have been more willing to prioritise their careers over their health by working longer hours, travelling further to work, etc. to the detriment of their ability to adopt a healthy lifestyle and thus maintain a healthy weight (exercise, cooking proper meals rather than ready-made, etc.).

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