Closing The Gap

Report: The sexism women experience as kids can affect how much they earn as adults

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If you're a woman who grew up in San Francisco, you may be more likely to earn higher wages, spend more years in the workforce and have your first child at a later age than a woman who grew up in, say, Atlanta — regardless of where both of you go on to live as adults.

That's according to a new report that indicates that it isn't just educational attainment and industry that affect how women are paid and how far they advance, but rather, that a woman's salary and labor force participation is heavily influenced by the sexism she encounters as a child and into adulthood.

The authors of the report, released by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago and first reported on by The New York Times, found that women who were born and live in a state where sexism is more pronounced are likely to have lower wages and labor force participation, and are also likely to marry and have their first child at a younger age.

University of Chicago professor Kerwin Kofi Charles, Northwestern University professor Jonathan Guryan and National University Singapore associate professor Jessica Pan emphasize that although sexism may occur in many forms, their focus is on the "negative or stereotypical beliefs concerning the ability or appropriateness of women engaging in market work rather than home production."

"The notion that sexism in the world might affect a woman's labor market outcome is something people sometimes say without evidence," Charles tells CNBC Make It. "But I think our results show how true that is."

Women read from the viral Google memo that argues men are better leaders
Women read from the viral Google memo that argues men are better leaders

As part of the study, researchers considered multiple scenarios, including two women born in two different states who now live in the same state, and two women born in the same state who moved to different states when they became adults. The scenarios revealed that women encounter sexism in two different ways: One, in the beliefs ingrained in a woman from birth, and two, in the behavior they encounter in others as an adult. If a woman is born and raised in a highly sexist state, those same sexist beliefs often affect her throughout life, regardless of her education or a move to another, less sexist state.

"Whatever it is you bring with you from where you were born and raised, we know it is showing up in a way that has nothing to do with the years of education you have," says Charles, a professor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy. "It is something you are carrying inside of you."

He says these internalized beliefs can often affect how women approach certain tasks at work or how they respond to salary negotiations and promotions. Charles and his co-authors only considered the experiences of white women, because they wanted to ensure the effects measured were certainly "a product of sexism, and not other factors like racism."

To help determine how sexist the environment in a particular state might be, they used data from the Census and American Community Survey and data from the General Social Survey, a national survey that asks respondents questions about their attitudes or beliefs about what a woman's role should be in society. The study notes that it marked a state as having high levels of sexism if residents believed that "women's capacities are inferior to men, families are hurt when women work and men and women should adhere to strict rules in society."

The map above, from the report, highlights that some of the highest levels of sexism exist in the southeast, while some of the lowest levels of sexism exist on the west coast. Midwestern states demonstrated a mix of environments, with Ohio demonstrating lower levels of sexism than Indiana.

The study also explored what effect is produced when sexist behavior is exhibited by a man versus when it's exhibited by a woman. Researchers found that when a man acts in sexist or discriminatory ways, it often influences a woman's pay and labor force participation. Since many workplaces are still led predominantly by men, men are more likely to have control over whether a woman gets hired or promoted.

On the other hand, the report found that men's attitudes had little effect when a woman decides to get married and start a family. Those factors are more heavily influenced by the pressure exerted by other women.

Overall, Charles says, the results show how sexism from birth to adulthood can have a lasting internal and external impact on women. Both of these effects, the report states, are an "important driver of women's outcomes in the U.S."

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