Case study

Why does the work women do pay less than the work men do?

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Author: Francisco Perales, University of Essex

Date: 8 December 2011

Type of case study: Research

About the research

Why are women paid less than men? Does it have to do with their skills or with their gender? Does the gender-type of an occupation affect the wages of men and women? New research using data provided by UK Data Service answers these and other questions.

Since the 1960s unequal pay between men and women has been a salient social problem in industrialised countries. Today, this type of wage inequality persists and the factors which produce it are still contested.

Previous research has demonstrated that the separation of men and women across occupations is one of the processes which produce gender pay-differences, as men tend to work in occupations in which pay is high and women tend to work in occupations in which pay is low. Besides, men and women with similar characteristics such as age, education, or labour market experience receive lower wages in occupations in which a higher proportion of workers are women. For example, male and female 'heavy machine operators' (a male-dominated occupation) earn more than male and female 'legal secretaries' (a female-dominated occupation), even though pay-evaluation studies have concluded that both occupations are comparable in worth.

Some social theorists argue that higher requirements in 'skills specialisation' (that is skills which are learnt on, and exclusively for, a given job) in male-dominated occupations drive their wages up relative to female-dominated occupations. But does this explanation really hold?

It appears it does not. This research using UK Data Service data confirms that UK wages are indeed lower in occupations dominated by women than in occupations dominated by men. However, the study demonstrates that only some of this pay difference between male- and female-dominated occupations is explained by differences in skill specialisation between them.

The final estimates indicate that somebody working in a male-dominated occupation receives wages which are around 10 per cent higher than those of an otherwise identical person who works in an occupation in which all workers are women. This is in line with theories which maintain that women's work is subject to a process of social undervaluation, portrayed as unskilled, and unfairly compensated. This research also establishes that the separation of men and women into different lines of work accounts for around 15 per cent of the gender pay gap.

About the data

This study drew on data from three datasets.

The first is the first eighteen waves of the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) conducted between 1991 and 2009. This major longitudinal study is aimed at understanding the social and economic change occurring at the individual and household level in Great Britain and later expanded to the entire UK in 2009 with the inclusion of Northern Ireland. The survey measures household organisation, employment, tenancy, income and wealth, health and socio-economic values, amongst other things, across Britain. In 2009 it was incorporated into the new Understanding Society study also hosted at UK Data Service.

The second is the Labour Force Survey (LFS), a quarterly survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics and hosted by ESDS Government. This survey aims to gather information on the UK labour market in order to develop, manage, and evaluate labour market policies. This research used each quarterly survey from 1991 to 2008.

The third is the Skills Surveys from 2001 and 2006. These form part of a three-part survey aimed at collecting information on the extent to which those in the UK labour force have the skills to match their job.


This study relied on quantitative methods, including cross-sectional and panel regression models of wage determination.

Data from individual respondents in the BHPS was supplemented by data from occupations taken from the Skills Surveys and the LFS. The latter includes variables on skill and specialised skill requirements, accident rates, and the proportion of workers who are women in each occupation.

Publications and outputs

This research has been published as part of the ISER Working Papers as Occupational Feminization, Specialized Human Capital and Wages: Evidence from the British Labour Market, September 2010.

This study also forms part of Perales' forthcoming Ph.D. thesis, Occupational Sex-Segregation in Britain: Nature, Causes, Consequences at the University of Essex.

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