As a sociologist, I like to break things down. So here we go.

We all know that women still earn less than men. Women’s wages are still a fraction of men’s—about 78 cents on the dollar—that’s just for full time workers. (For African American women, the number is 62 cents, Latinas, 53 cents.) Even when we “control for” education and experience, about 12% of the difference between men’s and women’s earnings cannot be explained. (Here at GWP we’ve discussed women in the failing economy and had dialogue about it, too.) So here’s the perpetual question: why.

Mind you, when we do “control for” education and experience, that means that we are not going to take into consideration the way that inequality influences who gets an education and what kind it is, nor the conditions under which one is able to ply her trade. We aren’t going to talk about how women’s and men’s so-called “choices” in the job market are conditioned on family leave policies that end up leaving women responsible for the 2nd shift at home more so than men. What I’m saying is that all those things aren’t choices at all.

But, I am also saying that inequality is complicated—and sneaky.

Let’s take the following puzzle. In 30 years of survey research, women report that they must work harder than men do. Why? A Gender & Society article by Elizabeth Gorman and Julie Kmec offers evidence for that sinking feeling that a lot of women have that “We (have to) try harder.”

Using surveys of working men and women in the United State and Britain, they found that women are 21-22% more likely than men to report that they work very hard at their jobs. That number is even higher when the kinds of jobs are taken into account, and it also is higher when women are working in fields dominated by other women. What is going on? The researchers investigated myriad explanations before determining what they see as the most likely explanation, namely, that “employers apply stricter performance standards to women than to men.”

How’d the researchers get there? Here are some questions they asked—and the answers they found:

Is it that men and women do different jobs? In other words, whose jobs are “harder”? They found that men’s and women’s jobs are different; though some jobs employ men and women equally (real estate, for example, is 50-50), other positions are dominated by either men (such as firefighters, 95-5) or women (like nursing, 10-90). In some ways men’s jobs are harder—and in other ways women’s jobs are harder. Women are more likely to be in part time jobs—these are more stressful and provide fewer rewards. Women are less likely to be in union jobs—and having a union makes your work life better, as reported in this and many other studies (including a forthcoming December 3, 2009 CEPR paper on the topic). Men have jobs that are on average more physically strenuous, though jobs typically held by women in childcare and health care can also be demanding physically. The punch-line: when men and women hold the same job, women report work harder.

Do women feel like they are working harder because they are working a second shift—taking care of the family? It depends where you live. In England, the answer is no—being married or a parent doesn’t influence the way women report how hard they work. In the United States, the answer is yes—being married or having kids makes women report working harder. Why the difference? I suspect it is because the UK has better day-care and family leave supports, which mean parents (and in this case, especially mothers) don’t feel as stressed as they do in the US. It doesn’t explain everything, though.

Do women look to different social norms than men do—do women expect jobs not to be as hard? The authors examine this by looking at jobs mainly held by men versus jobs mainly held by women…and there were no differences in job effort. As they explain, “If gender-specific effort norms exist, we should see a greater difference … in highly gender-segregated jobs….” But they didn’t. So the answer to this question is no.

What about social desirability? Is there something that would lead women to inflate their responses and men to underestimate theirs in order to make an impression on the interviewers? Let’s say men and women are influenced by traditional ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity” when they answer questions about work. Does tradition say that men would act like they slack at their jobs? Or that they would seem more “masculine” if they talked about hard work? Does tradition suggest that women should act like they are very hard working in their field, or that they would be more feminine when their job was something lightly held, done with less intensity? I don’t know, and the researchers don’t know. But given that one could see it go either way, the notion that women had a special incentive to over-report, or men to underreport, doesn’t hold water.

So….what else could it be? After carefully examining a host of explanations for the fact that women report working harder than men report, and testing those explanations empirically, the researchers conclude: “The most plausible interpretation…is that employers impose higher performance standards on women than on men, even when men and women hold the same jobs.”

Inequality is complicated. It hasn’t disappeared. It isn’t a consequence of choices that men and women make any more than racial or ethnic inequality is a choice. But all these things can change. The first step? Employers need to recognize that they are at risk of pressing their bias in informal and unconscious ways.

-Virginia Rutter