The Lesbian Wage Premium

By: C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges

C.J. and her public school teacher female partner have had some version of the following conversation with faculty wives (those married to men) countless times over the past decade:

Wives: “Wow, my husband just works so hard. It’s like I’m a single parent. But academia’s just like that –totally unpredictable. He has to work evenings and weekends to get published and travel all the time to conferences. I have to not work/adjust my schedule/work part time to make sure child care is covered/food is made/house is taken care of.”

C.J.’s public school teacher partner: “Huh. That doesn’t sound like C.J.’s schedule at all. She works 9-5 and we share childcare equally. She does some work after they go to bed and during naptime (and let’s be honest between the 4 am and 6 am wakeups in those early days), but we have a fairly regular schedule and division of labor. FullSizeRenderShe grocery shops, I take the kids to dance classes while she does so. She puts the kids to bed, I clean the house. Mornings are evenly divided between the two of us (though we do make the kids stay in bed until 6:20 so we can both get in early morning workouts!). Sure there are evening events/conferences/invited talks, but we plan those out in advance to make sure each of our jobs are covered. In fact when C.J. travels the table is covered in Tupperware and prepared meals so she holds up her part of the labor before she leaves (see image). Weird, it’s like our partners work in two totally different industries.”

Over and over and over again. So it was with only a little surprise that I read this headline in the Washington Post: “The Surprising Reason Why Lesbians Get Paid More Than Straight Women.” It turns out Marieka Klawitter, professor of public policy, examined 29 studies “on wages and sexual orientation and found a 9 percent earnings premium for lesbians over heterosexual women.” She suggested that this premium was due to lesbians’ increased levels of education and work experience.

Another another recent study, the article goes on to point out, showed that lesbians who had previously lived with a male partner made 20% less than those who never had lived with a man (though even these lesbians still made more than heterosexual women who lived with a male partner). Indeed, this “male partner penalty” reflects what Philip Cohen points out in this graph about women’s median earnings as a proportion of men’s by education (below). You can see the increase in salary proportionally for those who have not only never had kids, but are also not married.

Graph produced by Philip Cohen - https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/gender-gap-statistic-gets-it-from-all-sides/
Graph produced by Philip Cohen –
https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/gender-gap-statistic-gets-it-from-all-sides/

So what is going on here? We, in consultation with Facebook friends, have a few ideas:

  1. See the conversation above – that perhaps the premium is reflecting the fact that women in same-sex couples don’t perform a full second shift and perhaps engage in a more equitable division of labor. Time is not valued or undervalued by gender, in other words.
  2. Women’s work success may threaten their heterosexual relationship and they may reduce their professional efforts. This reduction is reflected in salary. Certainly research by Christin Munsch on women’s earnings and cheating patterns suggests that women’s earning power may not positively affect heterosexual relationships. (Idea credit: Kate Howlett McCarley)
  3. The wage premium has nothing to do with lesbians and everything to do with whether or not a woman lives with a man. We might see something similar for single straight identified women. (Idea credit: Siri Colom)
  4. The living with a man penalty might reflect regional patterns of homophobia and be less about the man himself. (Idea Credit: Megan Carroll)
  5. This might have something to do with queer gendered embodiments in the workplace. As Jane Ward asked “did they control for butchness?” Or Terri Eagen-Torkko suggested (tongue perhaps in cheek): “It’s probably just the half of us who are ‘the man.’” Indeed, could it be that there is something about the way one “does gender” that is different when one is lesbian identified? So lesbian identified that one has never lived with a man? More assertive perhaps? As such less prone to the mistakes women are told they make in negotiating salaries?
  6. Finally, these findings need to be squared with the recent study that showed that women who might be read as queer because of their work experience are less likely to be called by prospective employers in the first place. (Idea credit: Dawne Moon and Sascha Demerjian)

It’s likely a combination of all of these factors and more. But given the difference male partners make in the equation, we can’t shake the notion that domestic division of labor plays a big role here. And while those of us in same-sex couples may be freer to create new scripts for these duties, as Tristan can attest, it’s challenging, but can be done, in heterosexual relationships, too.

In heterosexual relationships, the script is institutionalized such that deviating from it is challenging for many reasons beyond people feeling like “less of a man” or as though they are failing to live up to motherhood ideals. While actually measuring an equitable division of labor is challenging in any relationship, there are social forces working against heterosexual couples attempting for forge egalitarian divisions of labor—perhaps particularly when they have children. Part of this might have to do with actual, authentic collaboration and support. The joys and burdens of relationships need to be balanced, and it’s probably not all that shocking to hear that lesbian couples might be better at this. Heterosexual relationship scripts are institutionalized in ways that make men and women unhappy (though, for very different reasons). Challenging these means forging new scripts—a march that is invariably uphill.

Indeed, we have learned to rely on one another as coauthors in this way as well—passing papers back and forth and trying to assess work/family balance issues, and more. It enriches our work lives. The labor for this blog post itself, in fact, was aided by a queer digital network of people interested in similar issues and ideas and eager to help. In the end, these studies seem to raise as many questions as they answer about sexuality, gender, and the wage gap. And we ought to consider the questions posed as well as those that appear to be answered.

4 thoughts on “The Lesbian Wage Premium

  1. On point 3 and in the research, where do bi women fall? Anecdotally I can say that my partner and I, both AFAB and bi, did the brunt of the housework when we were married to cishet men, regardless of flip flops in who was doing occasionally the bread winning; together we divide everything from bills to housework very equally. Are women partnered with women but who are bi identified counted as “lesbians”? Because that’s not accurate language then.

    • Point 3 is consistent with what you’re claiming here. Our argument is that this relationship may have more to do with living with a man than with sexual identities at all. So, we may see this both for single women, bi women living with other women, etc. I think we’re in agreement here. Whether they identify as lesbian or not is beside the point for what we’re addressing in point 3. Thanks.

      • Thanks. I think what was confusing was whether Klawitter’s research and the research studies she cites were bi-inclusive due to the title of this post and her article.

      • Also: the usage of the term “heterosexual” confused me as well. I’m always bi, so I use Philip Cohen’s term “heterogamous” to describe couples of different genders and “homogamous” to describe couples of the same gender. (“Two-woman couple” or “queer-lady couple” are also terms I use in a more colloquial sense for the latter.)

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