Why women make way less than men do in more religious places

The "Fearless Girl" statue was installed in front of the bronze "Charging Bull" in New York City for International Women's Day in March 2017, to draw attention to the gender pay gap and lack of gender diversity on corporate boards in the financial sector.
The "Fearless Girl" statue was installed in front of the bronze "Charging Bull" in New York City for International Women's Day in March 2017, to draw attention to the gender pay gap and lack of gender diversity on corporate boards in the financial sector. (Image credit: Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Why is there a persistent wage gap between men and women? Turns out, religion may play a big role in the disparity. 

New research finds that the wage gap is 8 percentage points wider in the five most religious states than in the five most secular, with women making 18% less than men in the least religious states and 26% less in the most religious. What's more, the gender gap is projected to vanish in 28 years in the most secular states, compared with a stunning 109 years in the most religious. 

"If they're in a religious community, our children are not going to know a world in which they're paid equitably," said Traci Sitzmann, an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado, Denver. "It's a little bit scary." 

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Religion and wages

Sitzmann and her colleague Elizabeth Campbell, an assistant professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota, were interested in exploring the impacts of religiosity on workforce issues. They started with a global view. Using data from 140 countries, they compared the likelihood of citizens answering "yes" to the question, "Is religion important in your daily life?" with the gender wage gap in those countries as of 2013, the most recent global data available. They found a striking association: The more religious a country, the greater the wage gap. In nations where more than 95% or more people said religion was important in their daily lives, such as Pakistan and the Philippines, women earned around 46% as much as men. 

In countries where fewer than 20% of people said religion was important to them in daily life, such as Sweden and Estonia, women averaged around 75% of men's wages. The United States had moderately high religiosity and women in the U.S. earned 66 cents for every dollar men earned, Sitzmann told Live Science. 

The effect held true for all major world religions, Sitzmann said. It didn't matter if most believers in a country were Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or adherants to a folk religion. The wage gap was still greater in countries where religion played a major role in daily life. 

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The researchers then turned to Gallup survey data on religious service attendance and the importance of religion in daily life in the 50 U.S. states. In the U.S. data, the researchers looked only at full-time wages so as not to skew the results due to women working fewer hours.

If they're in a religious community, our children are not going to know a world in which they're paid equitably.

Traci Sitzmann

They again found that the more religious the state, the greater the wage gap. (Mississippi, Alabama, Utah, South Dakota and South Carolina were the most religious states; Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Nevada were the least.) The researchers found that religiosity explained 17% of the variability in the gender wage gap between states. To ensure that the wider economy or levels of conservatism weren’t responsible for the difference, the researchers then looked at year-over-year data between 2008 and 2018 and found that the association between religion and wages still held. The gender gap is shrinking over time in the U.S., they found, but it is shrinking faster in secular states compared with religious ones. At current rates, it will take more than a century for the gap to close in the most religious states.

According to the workplace data analysis company PayScale, women make 81 cents for every dollar men make as of 2020. This analysis compares median salaries for men and women, and does not control for factors like seniority, years experience and education, all of which can be impacted by gender discrimination and gender role expectations.

The pathway to a wage gap

Sitzmann and Campbell found three reasons for this difference in wages between secular and religious regions. The more religious a country or state, the more that society differentiated the roles of men and women. In other words, women in more religious societies are expected to put family first. The researchers measured this by looking at how many babies women have, how many women work at all, access to abortion and family-friendly work policies. In more religious societies, women have more children, participate less in the workforce, have less access both to abortion and to policies that help balance work with family. 

Religious societies are also more likely to sexually objectify women, the researchers found. They measured this by looking at regional Google Trends for the search terms "pornography" and "rape." Both were correlated with religiosity, and both were correlated with the gender wage gap. 

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Finally, religious societies are also less likely to promote or accept women in leadership positions. "We've got the Pope saying, 'the door is closed, women are not allowed to be leaders in the church,'" Sitzmann said, referring to Pope Francis' 2013 statement on female priests in the Catholic Church. "That sets the stage for a very strong norm." 

She and Campbell found that in more religious societies, women have less representation in politics and in organizational leadership. They also have lower educational attainment and less legal equality. 

Closing the gap

Finally, the researchers conducted experiments to confirm that it was indeed religion, and not some closely related concept like conservatism, that explained the results. They set up an online game in which 91 participants, about half women and half men, acted as managers who had to allocate wages to employees based on performance reviews. All of the participants saw the same performance reviews, but in some cases the employee was named Patricia Anderson and in others was called Michael Taylor. 

Before seeing the performance reviews, some participants saw a description of the mock company they were working for that described it as faith-based. Others saw a description that focused on the company's dedication to communication and community. 

Those who were primed to believe they were working for a religious company allocated 3% more to the male employee compared with the female employee. In contrast, those who thought the organization was secular allocated 6% more to the female employee.

But there was a way to reverse the inequality. When the researchers told people in the mock religious company that one of the company values was that women needed to be involved, and that the company had a strict anti-sexual-harassment policy, it wiped out the gender wage gap, according to their research paper published Oct. 27 in the Academy of Management Journal.

This was a heartening result, Sitzmann said, because it suggests that simply being aware of expectations for gender equality will help make people behave more equitably. 

The major world religions all developed after humans had settled into agricultural societies in which men and women were typically prescribed different roles, said Stephanie Coontz, a historian at The Evergreen State College in Washington and the director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. Their edicts thus "tend to support a division of labor and a division of authority that put women as second-class," said Coontz, who was not involved in the new research. 

But there is a lot of room for interpretation in the major world religions' texts, Coontz added, and many passages affirm a more modern view of equality. 

"It's certainly not determinative," she said. "Many, many people who are religious have taken some of these things with a grain of salt."

National policy could help enshrine equality as a societal value, Sitzmann said. Two years ago, Iceland instituted a policy that requires companies to make their wage data available for independent review. Any company not paying men and women the same wages for equal work is fined. (The policy is currently being implemented in stages over four years, starting with the largest companies.) 

"In the end," Sitzmann said, "you want your wages to be correlated with your performance, not your gender." 

Originally published on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.