The U.S. state in which a white American woman is born can have a surprising effect on her lifetime earnings. According to new economic research, a woman who is born in a state that has a high prevalence of sexist attitudes will work – and earn – less over her lifetime than women born elsewhere, even if she eventually moves to a less sexist area.
The economists considered decades’ worth of data from the census and the General Social Survey, a poll that documents changing social attitudes over time. To determine a level of overall sexism for each state, they tracked the responses to questions about women’s roles in society.
The questions were in the form of statements, and respondents chose a degree of agreement or disagreement. For example, one of the statements was, “Women should take care of running their home and leave running the country up to men.”
Although the level of sexism expressed has generally declined over time, differences between states persist. The economists found sexism to be most common in the Southeast and least prevalent on the West Coast.
Once they had determined a degree of sexism for each state, the economists used census data to identify the wage gap between white men and white women. (They excluded other groups in order to control for the effects of racism.)
Although the gender-based wage gap between white men and women has narrowed nationwide over time, the states that had already been identified as having more sexist attitudes indeed had larger wage gaps.
The economists also took into account the effect of moving as an adult by tracking men and women born in one state who later moved to the same second state. For instance, they tracked male and female Coloradoans who moved to New York. They found that white women who were born in a more sexist state suffered a greater average wage gap than those born in their adopted state.
Interestingly, white women born in more sexist states tend to marry and have their first children “at appreciably younger ages.” Previous research had noted that women’s employment levels plunge after the birth of their first children and that women develop more traditional opinions on gender roles after having children.
The wage gaps found by the researchers persisted even when they controlled for age, education and traditional American migration patterns.
Ultimately, the research showed that being around other people with sexist attitudes is strongly associated with women working less and earning less than they otherwise might. The researchers ascribed the effect to multiple causes, including discrimination.