About that Pay Gap….The Dark Side

I wrote previously about the gender pay gap, the difference of women’s and men’s earnings, here.

That’s enough of a dark side you may think. But trust me, it gets darker.

Admittedly, the current discussion of That Pay Gap in the media is taking place largely among fairly powerful women; women who earn well enough to sustain themselves and more. The headline grabbing lawsuits on that matter usually concern women in, or just one step away from, executive leadership in profitable corporations.

What does the situation look like at the margin of empowerment, and, at the margin of poverty? To start, let’s think about a fundamental difference between men and women that is a bit uncomfortable to consider: women, also very poor women, always have a currency to pay in. There is always one thing they can offer and it’s usually worth money. Do you see where I am going? There is a huge market out there for female straight sex, and such a market does not exist for male straight sex. I am not saying this is an advantage – right now in the world it does not play out as one.

This paper by Damien de Walque and others shows that conditional cash transfers can get men and women to lead healthier sex lives and reduce their risk of contracting HIV substantially. Once the cash transfer is taken away, the behavior change persists among men but not among women.


Here is what happens: when the money is lacking, women need to pay with sex. Riskier sex pays better. This is not a lifestyle choice; it is a survival necessity. Men cannot do this, on the one hand; and do not need to do it on the other: they likely earn more than women anyway.

At the margin of empowerment, the gender pay gap forces women to be more available for sex.

Three Theories About That Pay Gap

It is no news. Women, the world over, earn less than men. Some of the famous gender pay gap is due to women’s professional choices, and to baby breaks. But this paper by Gillian Paull shows that, even when you carefully account for baby breaks, education and sector (and more), there still is a gap left.

What. The heck. Is That Gap??

Theory Number 1

Women don’t negotiate – at all, or don’t negotiate well. Employers know this, and rationally, take advantage of it by paying less than they would to a man (who can be expected to negotiate). A lot of popular books look into this, and its potential remedies, like Know Your Value by Mika.

I am sure this explains part of it, but not all. How about

Theory Number 2

Women are not allowed to signal success. This one is my favorite, and the one of which I seem to have most anecdotal evidence. Time and again I see men recount their successes. Not offensively so, but certainly confidently, and always attributing success to their own achievements. Never, really never, have I seen a man in the workplace attribute his success to luck or fate. When women signal their own success, it provokes smirks, mockery, or criticism. Cohorts of middle management feel entitled if not right-out divinely called to chip away at that evil woman’s assertiveness.

The women in my sample have ended up with one of three results: (i) They stop signaling. Their assertiveness leaves them never to return, and they go on producing successes no one ever attributes to them. This is the most frequent outcome, which naturally also results in lower wages. (ii) They withdraw and leave jobs until they find an environment that is fairer in its assessment, or they create it themselves in a start-up. This is somewhat rarer and can take a long time. And the rarest outcome is that (iii) women stay where they are, put their chin up and face the criticism right on. Those that are successful with it sometimes have an older male supportive colleague that negotiates their fate like an old-testament dad would the future of his daughter.

Some women have looked through the dynamics of i-iii and made a conscious effort to stay at iii. Several of them are very senior.

Theory Number 3

Women do not know their value. And they don’t know that they don’t know it. The most striking example I read about is this one. In the world of fashion and fast cars, models and women with similar exceptional beauty attend VIP parties without charging for their presence, while the VIP ‘friend’ that brokered their attendance gets a juicy commission.

Before I write myself into a complete rage, let’s spend that energy on a solution.

# 1 Remedy

Wake up, and sisterize. What about the following strategy, ladies: (i) realize that in many situations you are not paid (enough) when you should be, (ii) act in solidarity with each other and enlist as many friends as possible when making your claim for higher pay. The good old fashioned trade unions have been shown to work some way towards reducing gender pay gaps. But even without formal unionization, an informal united front of women (let’s call it sisterization) that share information and claim payment at value should go a long way.

This takes the humble realization that we are replaceable. Whenever we are not, we can negotiate as monopolists. But when we are, it takes a sisterhood.