The Gender Gap: Are Women Happy Earning Less Than Men?

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A new report released in Germany suggests that women are content earning less than men. But are they really more modest in their pay expectations? Experts are critcizing the report's findings, saying the results are based on outmoded notions of gender roles.

Less money for the same job: Are women really satisfied with lower incomes? Zoom
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Less money for the same job: Are women really satisfied with lower incomes?

A new report released in Germany has raised eyebrows this week with its controversial suggestion that women working in Europe's largest economy are content making less money than men.

"It is nonsense to say that women claim earning less than men is sufficient for them," says Hermann Sendele of Board Consultants International, a major international recruiting and personnel consulting firm. It is implausible, he says, that women would voluntarily accept less money than their male colleagues. "When it comes to managers," he says, "I can, in any case, rule that out. I have never experienced that in 22 years at this job."

The findings of report released by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in Berlin on Tuesday, however, show that women feel salaries that are around a quarter lower than men's salary expectations are fair. Based on data collected by DIW from more than 10,000 households each year since 2005, the study found that the trend holds true for all income levels and all sectors of the economy. In fact, the report states, women usually ask for less than men when negotiating their employment contracts.

Sendele says that he can only envisage women in lower-income jobs voluntarily accepting less pay. "That could occur in this area due to traditional gender role concepts, but certainly not with well-educated female managers," he adds. The consultant says that women have not only long been equally qualified, but that they are often even better educated than their male counterparts.

Still, Senderle is overlooking the fact that there is an undeniable gender income gap. In Germany, women earn on average 23 percent less than men -- even with the same qualifications. So how did it come about?

Usually, employers are blamed for allegedly discriminating against female employees. And politicians are also blamed for not doing enough to help women increase their salaries. However, the study, based on surveys carried out by the Universities of Bielefeld and Constance, has brought another possible interpretation into the debate: that Women are themselves to blame. Their lower income can be attributed to the fact that they are satisfied with lower salaries and do not insist on their rights.

'A Fatal Interpretation'

The DIW report doesn't express the situation in such drastic terms. And reality is quite different: Wage discrimination is common within German companies, the country's rigid labor market structures perpetuate gender inequality and the government lacks the ambitious programs common in Scandinavia that are helping to close the gap between men and women -- both in terms of management positions and income.

Nevertheless, other studies released in Germany have indicated that women tend to be more satisfied with their income than men. For example, in their research for an as-yet-unpublished study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW), Hagen Lesch and Jenny Bennett analyzed the sense of fairness among low-income employees. While 61.8 percent of men on an hourly wage lower than €8.50 ($10.68) were dissatisfied, only 50.3 percent of women felt the same. Lesch attributes that sentiment to different standards. "Women's sense of fairness is based on the entire household income, whereas for men it is more important to earn the income themselves." And other "soft factors" such as time management and proximity to the job are more important for women then men.

Reinhard Bispinck, an expert on wages at the Hans Böckler Foundation, which carries out research on behalf of the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB), says, however, that it would be a "fatal interpretation to say women have themselves to blame." In his opinion, the low expectations simply reflect the real income differences. The results show "how deadlocked the preconceived gender roles and salary expectations are in society." For him it is clear that these salary expectations are influenced by real constraints. "A large proportion of women are not at all in a position to negotiate their wages," Bispinck says.

In addition, the salary differences for those with the same qualification are not always apparent to everyone. "Companies need to be more transparent about how much they are paying to whom," he says. The Böckler Foundation even offers an online salary comparison for 280 professions. By using it, female workers in Germany can calculate just how much more men actually earn.

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