Last week I wrote about how markets militate against racism. It's a basic and over-worn point, but it seems to be forgotten regularly anyway. Here I shall make the same point, but with respect to women. It's a common view that women are paid less than men on average, even after you account for hours, experience, qualifications, industry, risks, pleasantness of job and so on (though they do account for a very large fraction of the gap).
But there are a few other factors that studies have only started looking into recently. One of those is exit. Women often exit the labour force earlier than men, trade down to more flexible or part-time jobs that don't pay as well. It might well be said that this is the product of socially constructed expectations about what different genders are expected to do and how they are expected to structure their lives—with one gender still doing more work outside the house and one still doing more inside.
But even if this is true, it is important to stress that this 'discrimination', which certainly doesn't seem to result in lower happiness for women, happens at the level of upbringing, schooling, and so on rather than at the level of employment. Firms are not to blame and indeed, recent research suggests firms are actually pretty pro-women.
For example, "Gender Differences in Executive Compensation and Job Mobility", published in the Journal of Labour Economics in 2012 (up-to-date abstract here, full working paper pdf here) finds that if you control for background (i.e. skills and talent) and exit (i.e. women staying in the workforce) women earn more than men and get more aggressively promoted than men.
Fewer women than men become executive managers. They earn less over their careers, hold more junior positions, and exit the occupation at a faster rate. We compiled a large panel data set on executives and formed a career hierarchy to analyze mobility and compensation rates. We find that, controlling for executive rank and background, women earn higher compensation than men, experience more income uncertainty, and are promoted more quickly. Amongst survivors, being female increases the chance of becoming CEO. Hence, the unconditional gender pay gap and job-rank differences are primarily attributable to female executives exiting at higher rates than men in an occupation where survival is rewarded with promotion and higher compensation.
Another paper, from July this year, finds that reservation wages (the lowest amount a person will take to do the job rather than remaining unemployed and taking nothing) explain the entirety of the gender wage gap that remains after you control for personal and job characteristics. This suggests, again, that the discrimination that is happening (if it is happening) is not coming from markets.
The economic literature typically finds a persistent wage gap between men and women. In this paper, based on a sample of newly unemployed persons seeking work in Germany, we find that the gender wage gap disappears once we control for reservation wages in a wage decomposition exercise. Despite a concern with reservation wages being potentially endogenous, we believe that the exploratory results in our paper can help one better understand what the driving forces are behind the gender wage gap. As the gender gap in actual wages appears to mirror the gender gap in reservation wages, there is a clear need to better understand why there are gender differences in the way reservation wages are set in the first place. Whereas a gender gap in actual wages could reflect either productivity differences or discrimination, a gender gap in reservation wages essentially reflects either productivity differences or differing expectations.
This just adds to a burgeoning literature finding that the reason men and women have different outcomes in labour markets is that they differ systematically in job-relevant ways. For example, men in the Netherlands systematically choose more competitive academic tracks. Even very narrow estimates of the risk-tolerance gap between men and women estimates it at about one standard deviation (implying the male and female distributions overlap 80%).
Again, this does not imply there is no discrimination in society—it just shows that it's not corporations, firms, companies, businesses, start-ups, market organisations who are doing it.