Why Do Lesbians Earn More Than Straight Women?

A big new study from the University of Washington has confirmed an economic truth that’s been understood for decades but not very widely known: lesbians earn more money than straight women. No matter how often studies across the world confirm it, though, it still surprises people and makes big headlines. Surely, LGBT people of any stripe face such discrimination in the workplace that they earn less than their straight counterparts? Does this mean lesbians are secretly taking over the world? Obviously, the answer to the pay gap between gay and straight women is a bit more complex than a conspiracy; it involves a mix of positive discrimination, education levels, work experience, effort, job choices, and a few other puzzle pieces. And we’re still figuring out how they all fit together.

After all, only seven of the world’s 1,645 billionaires identify as LGBT, according to Forbes. (And even in or around that elite group it’s not necessarily an easy road, as Gigi Chao, the lesbian daughter of billionaire Hong Kong businessman Cecil Chao, can attest; despite Gigi being married to her long-term partner, her father famously offered $65 million in 2012 to any man who could seduce and marry her himself.) But lesbians may eventually occupy slots in that group faster than gay men do. The new study, by University of Washington academic Marieka Klawitter, pulled together 29 different studies of wage and income inequality and laid out what they all agree on: lesbians earn many percentage points more than straight ladies.

Let’s go have a look at what the study actually says, why this doesn't mean identifying as a lesbian means being automatically able to afford a condo, and why the situation is actually pretty complicated.

How Much More Lesbians Earn Than Straight Women

It all looks pretty simple on paper: lesbians earn more than straight ladies. But Klawitter's University of Washington study had to trawl through 29 different studies, and many of them had radically different conclusions about how much more.

Looking at all the data, Klawitter thinks there’s a mean of about a 12 percent wage premium for lesbians over straight women, so the difference is real. But, as Klawitter points out, the amount of income difference varies a lot depending on how each study was constructed. If they’re based on same-sex couples, for instance, the income disparity’s a lot lower than just focusing on people who identified as gay or lesbian (or having a previous same-sex partner) in the census, for example.

Pinning down a precise wage gap is very complicated stuff, and asking people to confirm their status as a minority can sometimes be unreliable; some people don’t want even the nicest economist or census-taker to know.

How Lesbian Women's Earnings Compare To Gay Men & Bisexual Women

And here’s another bombshell from analyzing the 29 studies. Gay men, it turns out, aren’t actually all high wage-earners buying art in big metropolises, despite the Hollywood predilection for that rosy picture. Klawitter’s collection of studies confirms another truth: gay men face serious negatives in their earning column compared to straight dudes (between 12-16 percent less in America and Canada), likely because of widespread discrimination (and a possible preference for lower-paying industries). Myth utterly, and sadly, busted.

And, as you may have noticed, purely bisexual and transgender statistics are relatively thin on the ground. One study from Australia in 2015 found something awkward, though: bisexual women seem to have the same wages in general as straight women, but they experience lower wage growth over a decade and are between 13 and 18.5 percent less likely to have a job. Hurrah for us.

So, Why Do Lesbians Earn More?

There are many explanations for why lesbians might see more overall earnings than straight women. One is something called "positive discrimination." The Economist, (which published a review of Klawitter’s study under the headline "GIRL POWER,") points out that lesbians might get boosted at work by bosses who want to seem LGBT-friendly, or, less charmingly, believe they’re less likely to have kids than straight ladies. (That positive discrimination, though, sits alongside solid evidence of some pretty serious negative discrimination: a 2013 UCLA School of Law study found that between 15 and 43 percent of LGBT people in the U.S. had faced workplace discrimination, from being denied promotions to harassment.)

The higher likelihood that lesbian couples will be child-free might contribute as well. No babies means working longer hours and being more available for promotions. (Klawitter cites studies that show lesbians put in a lot of “work effort,” like taking on longer hours.) Plus, the Economist also suggests that same-sex couples divide domestic labor and chores more equally, leaving both partners with equal time to pursue ass-kicking at work.

Another possible explanation? Expectations about gender earnings. In a 2015 article about a Canadian LGBT pay-gap study, The Atlantic suggested that lesbians may put in more hours and push harder because they’re conscious that their gender might hold them back; they “might be compensating for having two female breadwinners by striving for higher earnings.”

There’s also an educational advantage. Lesbians and gay men are both more likely to have obtained a bachelor’s degree at college than straight-identifying people, and that translates into higher earnings, for lesbians at least.

And choice of profession matters, too. A 2007 study found that “gay men are in occupations that are more ‘typically female’ than other men while lesbian women are in occupations that are less ‘typically female’ than other women.” And more male-dominated professions, as Joe Clark points out in his meta-analysis of LGBT earnings studies since the '90s, tend to be paid more than female-dominated professions. Interestingly, the one place where LGBT pay gaps seem not to appear too much is in governmental jobs; the private sector is where this kind of thing really flourishes.

Finally, some economists wonder if there's another reason to add to the pot: lesbians may exhibit, or be believed to exhibit, more traditionally "masculine" traits that are rewarded in the marketplace with better earnings. What traits? One academic, Michael Martell, cites "assertive or risk-taking behavior," while another, Alyssa Schneebaum, adds "dominance, autonomy, competence, and detachment". This is seriously anecdotal and in no way forms a picture of lesbians as a whole (duh), but the presence of these characteristics in some lesbians (and, equally importantly, the possible expectation of employers that lesbians are like this) may, weirdly, be part of the picture.

Why This Study Isn’t The Full Picture

Yeah, being a lesbian isn’t the golden ticket, guys. Sorry. The Economist hammers home a nasty statistic: despite this finding, 7.9 percent of lesbian couples are living in poverty, compared to 6.6 percent of heterosexual ones.

And, if you look deeper at the numbers, the situation looks even worse. According to a collection of statistics by Slate in 2013, 14.1 percent of lesbian couples in the U.S. receive food stamps (heterosexual couple rate: 6.5 percent); a full 33 percent of lesbian couples who don’t have high school diplomas are in poverty, (heterosexual couple rate: 18.8 percent); and 2.2 percent of same-sex female couples get government cash assistance, compared to 0.8 percent of women in straight couples. Plus, according to the Center For American Progress, the average income for an LGBT household raising kids is $15,500, which is 20 percent less than the heterosexual average. Identifying as a lesbian is no guarantee of having Scrooge McDuck levels of capital lying around.

So before you start badgering your lesbian colleagues to buy every round at the next work drinks based on their superior earning performance, take a bit of a wider view. It’s still very much a hard world out there for LGBT people of every stripe.

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