What's Behind The Lesbian Pay Gap?

Gay women make 6% more than their straight counterparts, even if you control for other factors. So what's the cause of this sexual orientation pay gap?

According to Marina Adshade of BigThink, "lesbian women are better-educated on average, are more likely to be white, live predominantly in cities, have fewer children, and are significantly more likely to be a professional. But even when you control for these differences, the wage premium is still on the order of 6%." Lesbian women also face discrimination for their sexual orientation — a recent study suggested, for instance, that as girls, they may receive disproportionately harsh punishment. So it's surprising that this group actually makes more money than women who don't face homophobia.

Adshade speculates that straight women might make different decisions based on their expectation of a male partner: "if a woman believes that she will eventually be married to a man who earns a higher income than she does, then she has less to gain from investing in human capital that will give her an advantage on the labor market." But the idea that straight women make less because they're consciously or unconsciously trying less hard doesn't fully explain the results. Adshade points out that in one study, lesbian-identified women who were once married to a man, and thus may have had some of the same expectations as straight women, still made more than their heterosexual counterparts.

BoingBoing's Maggie Koerth-Baker offers another hypothesis: "I, for one, am curious as to whether lesbians are more likely to negotiate for raises than straight women." Some research shows women in general are less likely to ask for raises than men, but none of it breaks the sample down by sexual orientation. In the absence of data, all we have is speculation — but some of it is kind of interesting. Says Sara, a commenter on the Times Bucks blog,

I have to disagree with Ms. Koerth-Baker's theory that hetero women expect that they'll eventually have partners who make more than they do. I'm a 30-something hetero woman and have never expected to find a partner, let alone one who makes more than I do.

She may have a point that lesbians negotiate more than straight women. Perhaps it's because in some ways, they've already cast off traditional heterosexual female roles, so they may have more confidence — and/or less hesitation — when negotiating? By this, I mean that maybe they're not as worried about being seen as the nice female in the workplace.

Maybe by the time they reach the workplace, some gay women already have experience bucking gender stereotypes, so they're less likely to play what editor Joanne Lipman calls the "passive 'good girl'" at work. But again, nobody knows for sure why the lesbian pay gap exists — and finding out might tell us a lot about how both gender and sexuality impact people's careers.

Do Lesbians Earn More Than Heterosexual Women? [NYT Bucks Blog]
Lesbians Make More Money Than Straight Women (And Nobody Really Knows Why) [BoingBoing]
What Explains The Lesbian Wage Premium? [BigThink]

Image via Texturis/Shutterstock.com