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Peter Valet

Research Findings

How occupational gender segregation leads to the paradox of the contented female worker


July 29, 2018

The gender wage gap in Germany is higher than in most other European countries and the U.S. In 2017, women in Germany earned about 21 percent less on average than men. Despite this, women compared to men usually report that their wages are more just.

This puzzling finding, also known as “the paradox of the contented female worker,” has been detected in several studies from the U.S. and other countries since the 1980s. An explanation for this paradox, however, has remained elusive.

Some scholars argue that the paradox is a product of inherent differences in how men and women experience and perceive wage inequality. Their argument is that men place more value on wages. In contrast, women are thought to consider other dimensions of work—such as work-life balance or a good working atmosphere—as more important than wages. Little in the way of empirical support for this differential job value hypothesis, however, has been offered.

Another possibility is that men and women draw on distinct referents or comparative standards when assessing the fairness of the compensation they receive. In support of this, some scholars who investigated the salience of pay referents have shown that others working in the same occupation and who are of the same gender are the most important referents for wage comparisons.

My research broadens this perspective by assuming that occupational gender segregation within the labor market constrains the availability of a preferred same-gender referent standard. The idea is that women in female-dominated occupations will mostly compare their earnings with those of other women and, thus, are less likely to detect gender wage inequality.

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