News & Politics

Lesbian Economics

Susan Estrich recently wrote a column on women’s wages compared to men’s. A lot of you probably remember the buttons from the late 70s and early 80s that said “$0.69” — the amount, at the time, that women earned for every dollar earned by a man in the same job.

Since then, we made progress. Slow, small progress, but progress, until sometime in the mid-1990s, when we hit $0.75.

However, according to Estrich, more recent trends are cause for concern:

According to Labor Department data, women with college degrees who are between 36 and 45 earned 74.7 cents on the dollar last year, DOWN a penny from 10 years ago.

Women with high school educations are still making 75% of what their male peers make, which is obviously less than what most of us with college degrees earn, but the whole picture is ugly.

The fact that we’re losing ground really took me by surprise.

I assumed that, since the 1970s and the “$0.69” buttons, we’d been slowly creeping towards equality. I didn’t think we were there yet, but I would have guessed that we were in the high 80s, not less than 75%.

What I really find distressing and hard to think about in all of this, though, is the implications for lesbian families. Are we going to be able to afford things like college tuition etc at the same rate as straight families? How could we?

Let’s do some example math:

Couple A: Mr and Mrs AAA, each college educated. To keep the math simple, Mr AAA makes $100,000 per year. He and Mrs AAA met in college, with the same major and similar grades. She earns Estrich’s average of 74.7% of what he earns, or $74,700, for a combined household income of $174,700. (I never said we were feeling sorry for the couples in this example.)

Couple B: Mrs and Mrs QQQ, actually went to college with the AAAs. They all hung out and studied together. Both of the Mrs QQQ earn $74,700, for a combined household income of $149,400, which turns out to be only 85.5% of the AAA’s household income. (Still a nice income, but are QQQs really worth 14.5% less than the AAAs?)

Over time, this problem gets worse:

If the AAAs were to save that money every year for 10 years, even if they only earned 4% (a very conservative figure), at the end of the 10 years they would have $353,354.87 more than their lesbian friends. In 20 years at 5%, the straight couple is up almost a million dollars: $945,525.50.

That’s a lot of tutors, summer camps, college education, special coaches or classes, unpaid internships funded by parents, etc.

Over the course of a 40 year career, using the average annual rate of return for the stock market between 1892 – 1997, 7%, Mrs and Mrs QQQ under-earn their friends by $5,783,175.90.

I know, they wouldn’t all be earning the same salary over all that time, but trying to figure out the math on that is more than I’m up to right now. And the easy math still makes the point; I suspect that the real world version would actually be more dramatic, because Mr AAAs numbers would keep getting further apart from his wife’s or the QQQs.

Estrich makes two general suggestions for addressing the pay gap:

But there are two obvious answers to this – other than passive acceptance, that is. One is to look hard at the pay scales, and recognize that part of the reason certain specialties make less is not because they’re easier or less important, or even require less training, but because there are more women doing them. Another is to recruit more women to the high-paying ones.

On a societal level, sure. But easier said than done. On a “but what about my family?” level, kinda empty.

What do you think we should do? Either kind of suggestion is more than welcome.

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  1. You make a very good point here, and have gotten me thinking. Part of the wage gap is because of gender discrimination, I have no doubt. Part, too, is because straight, married women in the workforce who are mothers are still more likely to be taking on the greater part of childraising duties. They can’t or don’t focus on career as much as their husbands, and thus earn less. According to, “right now the wage gap between mothers and non-mothers is greater than between women and men—and it’s actually getting bigger. Non-mothers earn 10 percent less than their male counterparts; mothers earn 27 percent less; and single mothers earn between 34 percent and 44 percent less.”

    In a lesbian couple with kids, however, even if one of the partners has more childcare duties, that leaves one woman free to focus on career and the potential greater salary that can go with that focus. In theory, this means that the QQQs and the AAAs could earn the same. Gender bias means this isn’t always the case–but the situation might not always be as bad as you outline, either. (If the lesbian couple splits childcare duties, then one would assume each woman’s earning power is still more than that of primary-care moms, but less than that of a career-focused husband, and the numbers would probably end up about the same.)

    I admit this is all theoretical, and needs to be backed up with statistical studies. I throw it out here as a further aspect for discussion.

  2. I wonder how many women get side-tracked by their supervisors because of an assumption that they take on (or will be taking on) the greater part of the child care responsibilities? You know, don’t assign her the big, challenging project that requires overtime and concentration because she’s got kids at home who need her.

    In that case it wouldn’t matter if the woman was in a same sex partnership (or, actually, any kind of partnership, now that I think about it) and was the one focusing on career rather than childcare — she would still be penalized due to social assumptions. Factoring in a household where the two economic providers are both mothers might actually make the numbers worse — one woman with the full mother penalty as Dana mentions above and the other with a partial mother penalty (the partial coming from her focus on her career doing what it can to off-set the things working on holding her salary down).

    I say this just to muddy the waters even further…

  3. I recently read (in “Business Inside Out” by Witeck-Combs) that women in female couples earn more than women in male-female couples. That means that women in relationships with other women are making more than women who are in relationships with men.

    Female couples tend to have fewer children than male-female couples, and thus may have greater amounts of disposable income, compared to their counterparts.

    So, bisexual women and lesbians who are in same-sex relationships (like Mrs. and Mrs. QQQ) might be doing a little better than the numbers above suggest, although, of course, not as well as Mr. and Mrs. AAA combined.

    Sign me,
    A bi woman who is one half of a female couple, sans children

  4. Pingback: Queercents » How $0.25 Leaves Lesbian Households Millions Short

  5. And yet one more muddying of the waters: some studies suggest that lesbian/bi women actually earn slightly more than straight women. (See M.V. Lee Badgett, “Income Inflation: The Myth of Affluence Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Americans,” NGLTF Policy Institute, 1998.) I’m sure we still earn less than men, though, which is the main issue.

    I’m horrified that the wage gap has lost ground. Of course, it doesn’t help that except for a tiny group at the top, wages are shrinking across the board…

    Anyway, I just wanted to make sure we talk about these things knowledgeably so that less-than-supportive folks don’t get to quibble about minutia.

  6. I loved your article. You can check out the article I wrote about it on Queercents.

    What gets me to thinking though is how much the salary gap is caused by women’s reluctance to negotiate salary. I know I haven’t done so in the past. We have a sense either that we’re not confident enough, it wouldn’t be “nice”, or deep down that we’re not worth it or maybe we don’t know how to negotiate. Yet, male counterparts think nothing of negotiating salary all the time in their favor. Used to driving a hard bargain, or maybe it is just “expected”.

    I wonder if we started negotiating more for what we’re worth & refusing to settle if it’d have any effect on that gap.

    Great article & the compounding of the problem is truly eye opening.

  7. In terms of salary negotiating-I wonder if women when they negotiate are not taken as seriously? I’ve read so many books on salary negotiations, have practiced with Career Counselors etc…. It’s never really gotten me very far. I tend to get a take it or leave it attitude from a workplace. If I were male, I wonder if things would be different?


  8. To Paula’s point: I have *always* negotiated my salary in every new position I was offered, and it has paid off every single time. In my first job, I negotiated $2500 more a year and got the company to pay for moving expenses (which they hadn’t offered the first time round). In my second job, I negotiated $5000 more a year. In my third job I negotiated a $20,000 raise when I took on more responsibility two years in.

    You get the gist: Paula is absolutely right that even though I’m gay, I’m a man; and definitely consider negotiation of salary to be expected. I just assume a potential employer is low-balling me, and if I’ve passed second-round interviews, background checks, and received an offer, they really want me (but they try to save $$$). I have nothing to lose by negotiating, and everything to gain.

    So take Paula’s advice! Get what you are worth.

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