A New Explanation for the Gender Pay Gap?

When it comes to women earning less than men, two researchers say, size matters. That is, the size of the teams they supervise early in their careers.

Laura Kray and Margaret Lee of the University of California, Berkeley, have published a study of nearly 2,000 recent business-school graduates. They found a new piece of the gender salary-gap puzzle.

On average, male M.B.A. graduates were almost immediately given larger teams to supervise. That resulted in higher compensation for men, and the gap widened as they progressed in their careers. Women on average earned 71% of what men earned in director roles, the researchers wrote, and 55% of what men earned in V.P. roles.

“The damage has already been done silently and early, and it didn’t even look like discrimination,” Ms. Kray and Ms. Lee wrote in an essay in the Wall Street Journal. “Perhaps she had the same title, and in the beginning, maybe even the same salary. But after she started out with a smaller team, the salary gap began and grew.”

They questioned research participants about their attitudes toward team size. Both the men and women associated “male” attributes (such as assertiveness and aggressiveness) with large-team leaders and “female” characteristics (such as patience and politeness) with leaders of small teams. They said it was fair to pay more to leaders of larger teams.

What can be done? The researchers say it’s time to stop telling women that the pay gap is their fault as individuals—that women don’t ask for as much money or responsibility as men, that they lack confidence, or that they have made “career-limiting moves” by seeking flexible schedules or time off for parenting.

“Corporate leaders must analyze patterns in their companies and change them so that the many talented, educated women in the workforce can thrive rather than end up exhausted,” Ms. Kray and Ms. Lee advise.

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