What Explains the Lesbian Wage Premium?

Even when you control for cultural differences, lesbians in the workplace still make significantly more money, on average, than heterosexual women.

I have an idea for a Hollywood movie. An ambitious, young, heterosexual woman disguises herself as a lesbian in order to land herself the job of her dreams. Her handsome colleague takes her into his confidence and, of course, she falls in love with him. After a series of comedic events, she eventually gets her man and reconciles herself to mediocre wages, along with all the other heterosexual women.  It could be a modern day "Twelfth Night."


The wage premium paid to lesbian workers is a bit of a mystery. Sure, 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%.

It is fascinating when the data starts looking like the majority is being discriminated against. Is it wage discrimination, though, or is there an economic argument for why lesbians are getting paid more?

Well, a possible explanation has to do with the division of labor in a heterosexual union.

Anyone who has taken a first-year economics course knows that individuals benefit from trade if each specializes in a task at which they are the most efficient. This is the concept of comparative advantage. Men have historically been paid more to work outside the home—that has given women the comparative advantage in doing all the laundry. Of course the world has changed, and the gap between women’s and men’s wages has narrowed. But 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. This human capital doesn’t just include formal education—we can control for that—it also includes a variety of unobservable skills that the market rewards with higher wages.

Women who never have any intention of marrying a man, though, and look forward to a future with a female spouse, have none of these incentives to under-invest. They are just as likely as not to be in a relationship with a woman who earns an income that is comparable to their own. With no expectation of exploiting the comparative advantage in the home production, these women should increase investment in human capital that gives them an advantage on the market.

This theory is cleverly tested in a paper which calculates the wage premium paid to lesbians in two distinct groups—those who were once in a heterosexual marriage and those have never been married.* The assumption made is reasonable; lesbian women who were once married to men (about 44% of the lesbians in the sample) presumably have in the past had the expectation that they would have a marriage partner with a higher income. The never-married women might also have had this expectation, but it is much more likely that, on average, women in that group expected to be in a relationship with another woman with a comparable income.

Does the evidence support the theory that the wage premium can be explained by greater investment in more market-oriented skills by lesbian women? Well the premium does not disappear completely for the subset of previously married women but is reduced by about 17%, providing some support for the idea. At 5.2% though, the once-married lesbian premium is still high enough that I don’t think we can consider the case closed. 

There is a much bigger issue here that is worth exploring further. In explaining the lesbian wage premium, this paper has managed to contribute to our understanding of the gender wage gap—the difference in wages paid to observably identical men and women. The methods used in this paper are an interesting way to measure how much of that gap is due to discrimination and how much is due to unobservable characteristics that influence women’s efficiency. 

While that is a worthwhile line of enquiry, I think I will get back to my screenplay. I started my working life in the film industry. Perhaps I can stage a comeback writing schmaltzy economics-based love stories.

* DANESHVARY, N., JEFFREY WADDOUPS, C. and WIMMER, B. S. (2009), "Previous Marriage and the Lesbian Wage Premium." Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, 48: 432–453.

Image courtesy of Flickr user CarbonNYC.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

popular
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.