The Wage Gap--A Chicken-and-Egg Problem?

Last Updated May 23, 2011 10:04 PM EDT

Sometimes a harsh dose of reality isn't such a good thing. A new study from Sean Lyons, of the University of Guelph, shows that women expect to be paid less in their first jobs than men do and expect to wait longer than men for their first promotions. The irony is, Lyons' co-authors say the women are the ones with the more realistic career expectations.

Lyons, along with Linda Schweitzer of Carleton University and Ed Ng of Dalhousie University, spent three years surveying more than 23,000 Canadian university students. They found:

  • Women have lower salary expectations than men. The women in the study predicted that their starting salaries would be 14 percent lower than what the men forecast. When asked to predict what their wages would be after five years on the job, women named a figure that was, on average, 18 percent below what men estimated.
  • Women expect to wait longer to be promoted-about two months longer, on average.
  • The disparity was greatest among students who expected to enter male-dominated fields. The researchers say the gap in expectations was greatest among those who planned to enter science and engineering and smallest among those going into fields perceived to be more neutral.
Great, and not-so-great, expectations
The researchers proposed several explanations for their findings.
  • Women know there's a wage gap, and they take that into account when asked how much they're likely to make. "Women know that they currently aren't earning as much as men so they enter the workforce with that expectation," says Schweitzer. "Because they don't expect to earn as much, they likely aren't as aggressive when it comes to negotiating salaries or pay raises and will accept lower-paying jobs than men, which perpetuates the existing inequalities." According to a 2008 Canadian Labour Force Survey, Canadian women earn on average about 68 percent of what men do.
  • Men have unrealistic expectations. "Overall we found the male students' expectations are way too high," says Lyons. "These results may indicate that women are just more realistic about their salary expectations."
  • Men and women have different priorities. The women in the study were more likely to say they would place a priority on balancing their personal life and their careers or on making a contribution to society. Men were more likely to say their top priorities were career advancement or building a sound financial base.
Why do you think these students had such different views of their potential? Should women really be expecting less of their careers than men do?


Image courtesy of flickr user Benimoto
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor, and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.