Advocacy Thought Leadership

The Income Gender Gap: Casting Light on a Dark Topic

Dick and Jane meet at a PRSA event in March. Dick works for a defense contractor in Texas; Jane works for an art museum in New York City.

President Obama has declared that March is Women’s History Month. Jane mentions the topic of women’s history month over drinks with Dick.

Jane remarks that—according to a recent article in Public Relations Journal  women in PR earn $8,300 less than men each year, simply because they are women. Remembering something she picked up in a women’s studies class in college several years ago, Jane declares, “That’s patriarchy for you.”

Dick hasn’t read the article, but angrily disagrees.

Women, he insists, choose to work for low-paying organizations, pick easy areas of specialization within PR, work fewer hours, have fewer years of professional experience, and interrupt their careers to have babies or follow their husbands to other cities. Women choose to be technicians, he insists. Men strive to become managers and participate in management decision-making.

Dick and Jane agree to disagree—and to never see each other again.

Dick and Jane are fictitious practitioners. But their argument is typical of the 40-year debate in PR about the well-documented gender pay gap in public relations. Also typically, the argument is clouded by gender and political ideology.

So, who’s right? Dick or Jane?

The most recent evidence shows that there’s a bit of truth to both sides of the argument.

As part of our work on PRSA’s National Committee on Work, Life, and Gender, we conducted a survey of PRSA members. Here’s what we found.

  • Women do have fewer years of professional experience than men; this does account for some of the income gender gap.
  • Because they have fewer years of professional experience, women are less likely to play the manager role and to participate in management decision-making. Lower participation in decision-making means lower salaries.
  • Women work in lower paying career specializations (community and media relations, for example), in part because they have fewer years of professional experience. Do women choose lower paying specializations? Or are high paying specializations (financial/investor relations or crisis communication, for example) more readily available to men?
  • Regarding low-paying organizations, there is no difference between men and women.
  • Regarding hours worked per day, there is no difference between men and women.
  • Regarding career interruptions (both good and bad from an income-generating perspective), there is no difference between men and women.

So what’s the bottom line? On average, men earn $21,595 more than women. About $13,290 of that gendered income gap can be explained by differences in years of professional experience, participation in management decision-making, and PR specialization.

However, after taking into account all the reasons above that might explain away the income gap, women still earn $8,305 less than men. Over a 40-year career, that’s $332,200. We submit that this residual income gap between men and women—after controlling for all substantive influences tied to income and gender—is gender discrimination.

Some have argued that this discriminatory, gendered income gap described here is a “myth.” That assertion, however, is based on faulty data analysis.

The real myth is that gender income discrimination can be “explained away” somehow by throwing alternative explanations at the facts willy-nilly.

The gendered income gap and gender discrimination are complex, multi-layered social phenomena. We would all do well to turn down the rhetorical heat—and turn up the light of dispassionate theory construction and data analysis.

David Dozier, Ph.D.; Bey-Ling Sha, Ph.D., APR; and Hongmei Shen, Ph.D., School of Journalism & Media Studies, San Diego State University


  • “Remembering something she picked up in a women’s studies class in college several years ago, Jane declares, ‘That’s patriarchy for you.’ ” — that strikes me as a pretty patronizing comment. Women are well aware of gender discrimination in the workplace. It’s not some soundbite you pick up in a women’s studies class.

  • As as young woman about to go into the work force from undergrad, I have heard the looming argument about wage discrimination for women. I can remember a mock interview I had for a mock job as an assigment for class. I did great on the interview, but I stumbled when the male interviewer asked me how much did I want to get paid. I did not have in the back of my mind that there was also a “tap-dance” of sort that you also have to consider when you are applying for a job. I agree with this article to an extent- I think that a lot of women do not negogiate their salaries. As a millenial, I also would like to point out that most of us are coming out of the salary secret phase. . Check out this article by the Atlantic Wire. Most of us have been raised to be avid communicators, so hopefully when female millennials begin to know the wages of their male counterparts, they will be able to know that they are getting paid less. Not telling how much you make in the work place also leads to the wage inequality. .

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