How Religion Can Help Explain the Wage Gap

  • 2016-04-05
  • Science of Us

It’s become a frequent, depressing talking point by now: Take a man and a woman, equally qualified, and the woman will make, on average, 77 cents on the dollar as compared to the man.Though often repeated by pundits, journalists, and politicians — including the president — the 77 cents narrative isn’t quite true. Things are more complicated than that; it appears more likely, as a recent episode of Freakonomics argued, that women are often doing different work: work that pays less.

The reasons for this are varied and complicated. In some cases, women really are paid less to do the same work. In other cases, they end up in lower-paying jobs as a result of institutional and cultural forces that nudge them towards careers with greater flexibility or more time at home.
According to Travis Wiseman, director of the International Business program at Mississippi State University, and Nabamita Dutta of the University of Wisconsin, researchers have largely ignored the cultural factors that shape gender roles in the workplace. As the two researchers note in a recent working paper, there has been little attention given to one cultural factor in particular: religiosity.

To test that variable, Wiseman and Dutta looked at how two different measurements of religiosity among residents of different states — belief in God and participation in religious activity — correlated with the gender wage-gap in those states. Even after controlling for age, education, marital status, occupation, time in the workforce, and other factors, they found that this correlation was rather significant: specifically, the that a three percent increase in a state’s religiosity related to a one percent increase in its gender wage-gap.

These findings are consistent with the idea that religious beliefs and institutions, even informal ones, can shape social interactions and thus economic behavior. Women’s roles as mothers and workers are shaped by religious norms and customs, even when those norms aren’t directly dictated by religious dogma.