What’s Really Behind Why Women Earn Less Than Men?

Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why,  Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?

The largest factor in the persistent wage gap is the dearth of women in specific jobs and industries, the researchers found. That means that narrowing the wage gap further requires making high-paying, male-dominated industries like STEM fields and tech companies more enticing and welcoming to women. And even before that, encouraging women and girls to take advantage of opportunities to explore and learn about fields like coding and science that remain male-dominated at both the professional and college level. This could help bring up overall wage averages, though it wouldn’t wholly address the gaps that remain between men and women’s salaries even within high-paying industries.

The study also points to … wait for it … culture, which continues to favor men’s participation in the workforce and women’s participation on the home front. “Current research continues to find evidence of a motherhood penalty for women and of a marriage premium for men,” the report finds. “The greater tendency of men to determine the geographic location of the family continues to be a factor even among highly educated couples.” (The researchers assign minimal importance to theories suggesting that psychological factors such as the notion that men are bigger risk takers, or that women are more averse to tense negotiations have all that much to do with the skill gap.)

The Next Economy

“Culture” is kind of a squishy concept. How, precisely, does culture push women’s wages down (or men’s wages up)? They find that one of the more significant contributing factor to pay disparity is due to the fact that women are more likely to spend time away from the workforce and are more likely to work truncated schedules as they try to balance both professional and personal priorities, such as caring for children or parents. Progress in pay parity has been slower among women in highly skilled professions than those in professions that don’t require a college or graduate degree. The paper notes that this may be because women in high-paying, demanding jobs, like doctors or lawyers, are more harshly penalized for time spent away from the office, and clients. Specifically the penalties for time out of the office are high among those with MBAs and JDs.

But it’s also true that these women likely have the option to take more time in the first place. Women with more elite, high-paying jobs typically have better options either via benefits or savings, or family assistance, that can allow them to take time away from the workforce, even if it results in a reduction of overall income.

The researchers note that discrimination, too, can play a role. When it comes to hiring and promotions, concerns that women will (or should) spend more time away from the office, or will somehow underperform can create a labor market where it’s difficult for women to achieve to the most advanced and highly paid positions.

The Diversity Advantage

The tech company Slack recently made headlines when its CEO sent four African American women to accept an award on his behalf. This was a radical move in the tech sector, which is as a whole decidedly male. While other industries’ lack of gender diversity may be less glaring, it’s an issue economy-wide. “Diversity” has become such a ubiquitous concern in hiring that the writer Anna Holmes wondered whether the term has lost its meaning.

New research shows that there’s one reason why companies might want to hire a lot more women, especially at the higher ranks: It’s good for the bottom line. That’s the finding of a massive study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the accounting firm EY. The study looked at nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries, and found a correlation between the number of women in executive positions and a company’s profitability.

“The research demonstrates that while increasing the number of women directors and CEOs is important, growing the percentage of female leaders in the C-suite would likely benefit the bottom line even more,” said Stephen Howe, EY’s U.S. Chairman, in a press release.

Overall, the study found a dearth of women in corporate leadership positions. In the sample, 60 percent of companies had no female board members, and 50 percent had no female top executives. A female CEO was even harder to find: Less than 5 percent of the 22,000 companies had one. While the study saw no increase in profitability for companies led by female CEOs, it concluded that having women on corporate boards and C-level ranks was associated with better performance.

The authors of the report cautioned that this relationship may or may not be causative. Women could well be bringing about better results for their employers, but it could also be that the types of firms that hire without discriminating may also be the types of firms that are, relative to their industry peers, more forward-thinking and nimble in general.

The study also found that boardroom quotas, such as Norway’s, which legally requires 40 percent of a company’s board to be female, did not impact a company’s bottom line. (However, according to Aaron Dhir, the author of Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity, corporate directors in Norway feel that the requirements have enhanced the quality of the boardroom, as well as corporate governance.) But the study’s main finding is that if any profitable company moves from 0 percent women to 30 percent women in top management positions, it can expect to see its net profit increase 15 percent.

Do People Look for Earning Potential on Tinder?

Three months ago, the dating app Tinder announced that it would add a feature many of their users had been requesting: the option to include job and education information on their profiles. At the time, I wrote that this was perhaps a sign that the dating app was going the way of traditional dating—when it isn’t just a snap judgement based on a photo, people might start matching more often with those of similar education and economic backgrounds (a phenomenon that researchers call “assortative mating”).

Tinder said that adding these two pieces of information would mean its users could make “more informed choices” when deciding whether to swipe right and “like” another user’s profile. Since then, millions of users have added their jobs to their profiles and recently, Tinder released a list of the most right-swiped jobs in the U.S., broken down by gender, between November 2015 and January 2016.

Pilots were the most popular job among people viewing men’s profiles; physical therapists were the most popular among those viewing women’s. But the list gets more interesting when paired with data about the earnings of each of the most popular professions. Matching Bureau of Labor Statistics data with the most right-swiped professions provides a look into whether high-earning professions on Tinder are more popular than low-earning ones, and whether there’s a gender difference in these preferences. In other words: Are men whose jobs suggest they make more money more sought-after? What about women with lucrative-sounding jobs?

Here, arranged from top to bottom, are the most popular professions for male users to have on Tinder, matched with their average annual earnings according to BLS:

I had to cheat a little bit on one profession: There isn’t an official estimate for self-employed entrepreneurs, so I used the figure for an executive who runs a company. (This may not be the most accurate approximation of what self-styled “entrepreneurs” actually make, but it may be close to what people imagine they make when they see the word.) I also omitted the earnings estimate for an active military-service member because it is a bit complicated, since non-cash compensation can make up 60 percent of their pay packages. And college student, another “job” on Tinder’s list, was left out as well.

And here, arranged from top to bottom, are the most popular professions for female users to have on Tinder, matched with their average annual earnings according to BLS:

On the whole, the average of income of the most popular professionals on Tinder are $73,200 for men and $61,395 for women—a fair amount above the median income in the U.S. So it might seem like both men and women prefer high-earning partners. But taking a closer look at the professions on the lower end of this earnings spectrum, there seems to be a certain pattern at play.

On men’s profiles, the most popular but lowest-earning jobs are firefighters, models, paramedics, personal trainers, TV or radio personalities, and police officers. Five of the six are professions that imply certain physical attributes—ones that are seen by the culture as “sexy.” The other pattern in these professions is that some of them are regarded as as honorable or heroic.  

On women’s profiles, the most popular but lowest-earning jobs include models, personal trainers, and flight attendants. These are also professions that, in the public mind, tend to carry some sex appeal. Other popular occupations on the women’s list—such as teacher, nurse, or interior designer—can be described as stereotypically feminine, though it’s hard to say exactly what that means without seeing the whole list of jobs sorted by popularity on Tinder. (I struggle to explain the prominence of speech-language-pathologists on the list.)

Taken together, it would seem that Tinder users are willing to forgo some earnings for sexiness—and that’s true for those seeking both men and women. This might be indicative of what economists call revealed preferences—what people actually want as opposed to what people say they want. In surveys regarding what people look for in mates, women tend to prioritize earning potential and ambition while men prioritize attractiveness. But it’s important to keep in mind that many people use Tinder to look for a fling or a hookup (as opposed to a relationship), and that means that behavior on Tinder isn’t exactly reflective of how the marriage market works. But it’s still at least somewhat representative of what people look for in mates, considering that Tinder has enabled 10 billion matches and thousands (or even more) engagements.

Why Where’s Waldo Is Hard and Photo Hunt Is Easy

I’m just going to brag about something for a second. I am really good at Photo Hunt. Excellent, you might even say. If the Sports Depot in Allston, Massachusetts, still existed, you’d see that my friend Chrissy and I were straight-up champions circa 2006. (Hi Chrissy!)

Play enough of this bar-top touch-screen game—it requires looking at two almost-identical side-by-side images and racing the clock to identify a handful of anomalies—and you learn a few key tricks. That’s because many of the photos are altered in the same way. You should always look for slight differences in the length of a person’s sleeves or pant legs, check to see if there’s an extra pouf to someone’s hair, and keep your eyes peeled for missing windowpanes and extra-long shadows in landscape scenes.

There is, it turns out, a much more straightforward way to ace this game. “There’s a technique for Photo Hunt,” said Corbin Cunningham, a graduate fellow in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins.  “If you cross your eyes and combine the images like a stereogram, the differences pop out. All you have to do is cross your eyes to overlap the images.”

This, apparently, is a thing that people know. Or, at least, this one other guy, deemed by Esquire to be the world’s best Photo Hunt player in 2009. After he was dumped by his college girlfriend, the magazine reported, Dennis Just turned to the videogame and figured out he was exceptionally good at the eye-crossing trick. (That said, “it’s harder than it sounds,” Esquire cautioned.)

The reason this came up at all was because I recently interviewed Cunningham about his research into how people pay attention. He wanted to figure out whether telling someone what not to pay attention to (as in: don’t think about a polar bear) is purely distracting or ultimately beneficial. In his research, he finds that being told what to ignore can actually help someone find what they’re looking for more quickly. (I wrote about his findings in greater depth here.)

In Cunningham’s research, study participants were asked to find an object—a certain colorful letter, for example—in a sea of similar-looking letters or imagery. Naturally,  I thought of the rapid scanning that’s required to compare photos in Photo Hunt. But I also thought of Where’s Waldo?, the illustrated series in which readers are asked to identify a bespectacled man wearing a striped red-and-white sweater. (You may also know the series as Where’s Wally? if you live outside of the United States or Canada.) Given Cunningham’s latest research, would it be possible to use the technique he identified to locate Waldo more quickly? Could you tell a person something like, “ignore everyone not wearing glasses,” to find Waldo more efficiently?

Probably not, he said.

“The reason Where’s Waldo is really hard is everything is extremely heterogeneous,” he told me. “There isn’t anything that one could certainly ignore.” And that’s because the same features that make Waldo so Waldo-y—those John Lennon glasses, that poof-ball knit hat, the damn stripes—are replicated red-herring-style throughout all the scenes in which Waldo’s hiding.

Of course, as Ben Blatt pointed out for Slate in 2013, Waldo’s hiding patterns aren’t exactly random. Blatt mapped Waldo’s location on the page across several books, looking for patterns. “I sat in a Barnes & Noble for three hours flipping through all seven Where’s Waldo books with a tape measure,” he wrote.

What he discovered from his sampling of the main Waldo books: More than half of the time Waldo is hiding “within one of two 1.5-inch tall bands,” one band that’s three inches from the bottom of the page and another that’s about four inches above that.

But like crossing your eyes to win at Photo Hunt, even though this trick may make finding Waldo easier, it probably won’t make it any more fun.

Why Straight Men Gaze at Gay Women

“What is the most popular porn search term in your state?”

This headline dutifully poked open a gap in my curiosity when variations of it appeared a few days ago.

Ooh, is it “half-Jewish bloggers with autoimmune issues?”

Click. Sigh. No, alas. It’s lesbians.

The map, created by data from Pornhub, reveals that in the majority of states, people are searching for lesbian porn the most. Oh sure, in a few quirky states, cartoons are the most popular. Others have ethnic preferences or mother figures they’d like to, uh, well you know. Perhaps the cold weather in Wyoming, Maine, and Minnesota makes people pine for their stepsisters.

Most Searched-for Term, by State


But otherwise, it’s lesbians riding up the Eastern seaboard on the Acela of love. Lesbians trotting across the vast, great Western plains. Lesbians uniting New Yorkers and Alabamians like little else does. Lesbians, from sea to shining sea.

Of course, the Pornhub results are far from scientific. Even past data dumps from the same company have purported to show that “teen” or “MILF” porn are actually more ubiquitous.

Nor is the fascination with lesbians solely a male phenomenon. In a Marie Claire survey of mainly female respondents, lesbian porn was the second most popular option, after the heterosexual variety.

Still, the idea that straight men like it when two women make out (and more!) is so commonplace that it’s a cultural touchstone. They don’t even have to be real lesbians: “Those twins” are among the things a canonical Coors Light drinker loves. On Friends, Chandler and Joey give up their apartment—their apartment in Manhattan—for the chance to watch two of their straight female friends kiss for one minute.

So what is it about the sight of two women that, purportedly, sets male loins ablaze?

First of all, lesbian porn does not rank as highly among male sexual interests as do, “breasts, butts, MILFs, amateurs,” and even women with penises, according to the research of Ogi Ogas, a neuroscientist and co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire. For the book, he and co-author Sai Gaddam analyzed millions of searches, erotic stories, videos, personal ads and other data to find out exactly what makes humans tick down there.

But to the extent that lesbian erotica is popular, it can be explained by the fact that men are most aroused by visual cues that emphasize youth and downplay drama and emotional complexity. Lesbian porn, therefore, works for straight men by “doubling up” those visual stimuli, Ogas explained. The only thing better than one nubile, personality-free woman is two of them.

I pointed out to Ogas that this is a rather irrational desire: Lesbians are the only group of women who will categorically never be interested in a straight man. This is like someone named Steve entering a lottery called “Mega Millions for Anybody But Steve.” It’s not going to happen, Steve!

“It’s amusing that you offer up the fact that lesbians will never be interested in men as a possible reason why men should not be aroused by them,” he said. “Sexual fantasy obeys its own set of rules that have nothing to do with propriety, common sense, or even the physical laws of the universe. Women, for instance, are often aroused by billionaires and celebrities who are extremely unlikely to reciprocate the sentiment.”

(I maintain that Oscar Isaac is going to come around any day now.)

Ogas says that when it comes to fantasy, it gets even weirder than being into people who aren’t into you. “Many people nurse erotic fantasies of shrinking to the size of a mouse or being transformed into a furry bunny,” he said.

Interestingly, the reverse—loving gay male porn—is not quite true for women. At least, not in the same way. Unlike most men, Ogas says, most gay and straight women have an emotional, narrative component to their erotic fantasies. Straight women may have enjoyed Brokeback Mountain, but it was probably for the story.

Michael Bailey, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who has studied arousal, said when they’re asked by researchers, women say they don’t get turned on by sex scenes featuring two men. However, when researchers measure their levels of genital arousal, women seem to equally enjoy erotica featuring two women, two men, or a heterosexual couple.

“Their genitals get aroused, but that’s not necessarily what they feel in their heads,” Bailey explained.

Meanwhile, most straight men don’t get aroused—genitally or intellectually—by anything other than women. The reason, Bailey speculates, is that it wasn’t evolutionary advantageous for women to be as sensitive to visual stimuli as men are, since we face pressure to pick the one guy who is going to invest a lot of resources in our offspring, and looks alone aren’t the best way to judge that. We’re looking for an officer and a gentleman, so we can’t be distracted by, ahem, Any Orificer and a Genitalman.

And all of this doesn’t mean that real straight men are romantically attracted to real lesbians. “Very few men visit websites containing erotica featuring actual lesbians that is targeted at actual lesbians,” Ogas said.

It’s all just what Ogas calls an “erotic illusion”—images that trick our sexual circuits just like that “vase or two faces” thing tricks our optical circuits. Straight men don’t actually want to date a lesbian, just like young women don’t actually want to date a vampire or sadomasochistic recluse. We keep those thoughts between ourselves and the computer keyboard—and the all-seeing eye of Big Data, naturally.

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