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Transgenderism and the Glass Ceiling

Transgenderism and the Glass Ceiling
HPD
  • On December 29, 2013

One of the oldest debates in contemporary social science is why women earn less than men. Conservatives tend to argue that because women anticipate taking time off to raise children, they have fewer incentives to work hard in school, and they choose careers where on-the-job training and long hours are less important. Liberals tend to focus on sex discrimination as the explanation. Obviously some mixture of those factors is at work, but academics have long been frustrated when they try to estimate which force is greater: women’s choices or men’s discrimination.

A new study looks at this problem in a wonderfully inventive way. In previous studies, academics have looked at variables like years of education and the effects of outside forces such as nondiscrimination policies. But gender was always the constant. What if it didn’t have to be? What if you could construct an experiment in which a random sample of adults unexpectedly changes sexes before work one day? Kristen Schilt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and Matthew Wiswall, an economist at New York University, couldn’t quite pull off that study. But they have come up with the first systematic analysis of the experiences of transgender people in the labor force. And what they found suggests that raw discrimination remains potent in U.S. companies.

Schilt and Wiswall found that women who become men (known as FTMs) do significantly better than men who become women (MTFs). MTFs in the study earned, on average, 32% less after they transitioned from male to female, even after the authors controlled for factors like education levels. FTMs earned an average of 1.5% more. The study was just published in the Berkeley Electronic Press’ peer-reviewed Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy.

The men and women in the study had already gone to school and made their career choices. Some of them changed jobs after they transitioned, and some stayed in the same jobs. Some were out to their employers; others started completely new lives as members of the opposite sex. Regardless, the overall pattern was very clear: newly minted women were punished, and newly minted men got a little bump-up in pay.

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