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‘Greedy jobs’ have led to a shocking pay disparity for well-educated women

Greedy jobs are often on-demand, deadline-intense, and client-facing. They hog your life and won’t let go. But they can be very lucrative. And they’ve led to a shocking pay disparity for well-educated women.Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg/file

I remember, years ago, standing in a hallway with Maynard Webb, the former chief operating officer of eBay.

He said that he had once been e-mailing back and forth with Marissa Mayer, a longtime vice president at Google (later the chief executive of Yahoo). And for a few hours, he heard nothing from her.

Finally, when Mayer got back to him, she apologized for being slow: She had just given birth.

Over the past 10 years, I have been more of a slacker than Mayer and taken two maternity leaves. Neither lasted more than about a month (I probably started checking e-mail a few days after delivery).


I was offered more time off but could not figure out any realistic way to take it. So I didn’t.

Many people — not just women — will recognize some version of this feeling, even if it doesn’t revolve around parental leave.

The voice in your head says: If I take all my vacation days, I won’t get enough work done this quarter. Or: If I don’t work on Saturday, I’ll never bill enough hours. Or: If I don’t check e-mail on the beach, I could miss something really important.

Behold the “greedy job.”

At least, that’s what the eminent Harvard economist Claudia Goldin calls it.

Economist Claudia Goldin.BBVA Foundation

Greedy jobs are often on-demand, deadline-intense, and client-facing. They hog your life and won’t let go. But they can be very lucrative.

And they’ve led to a shocking pay disparity for well-educated women, one that is rarely discussed and that may well have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

But before we get to some hard numbers, here’s a thought experiment.

Imagine, says Goldin, two married lawyers who decide, as they begin to raise a family together, that one will have the greedy job, and one will have a more flexible job.


Often, it’s the woman who picks — or feels compelled to take — the position with flexibility. And women who veer away from a career track or take an easier route have a tough time catching up.

Among college graduates, greedy jobs compound the inequities: The more the higher earner in the couple makes (usually the man), the more valuable their work becomes.

Goldin, who’s the author of the book “Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity,” says that lots of research shows that “the gap between men and women and their earnings is much greater over time, greater for higher-income individuals, greater for higher-education individuals.”

She says it’s something “that we don’t really like to talk about.”

Goldin told me that in the 1960s, women were outraged to be earning about 60 cents for every dollar a man earned. That number has now climbed considerably — to about 82 cents, she says.

But for women with higher incomes and more education, the picture looks very different. For mid-career MBAs, for example, Goldin notes that we’re still looking at women earning something like 60 cents on the dollar.

That should shock all of us.

“In the starkest terms,” she’s written, “[college graduates] are faced with a choice between a marriage of equals and a marriage with more money.”

So even though women now far outpace men in college enrollment — women make up a staggering 60 percent of undergraduates — they are unlikely to hold the levers of power any time soon.


There are glimmers of hope, perhaps, but they come with major asterisks.

For example, in late 2019, the number of women surpassed men on American payrolls, for only the second time ever.

And by 2021, the percentage of male CEOs had dropped to an all-time low on the Fortune 500.

So, here’s the first asterisk: What was that all-time low? 92 percent.

Yep, after a solid 50 years of women muscling into the workforce, men are learning to live with less. About 8 percent less.

Then, there’s the second asterisk: The pandemic, according to Pew, has prompted more mothers to say the best situation for them is not to work at all.

Even before the pandemic, notes a recent report from the Institute for Family Studies, the mothers most likely to stay home were those with partners earning more than $250,000 a year; about half of mothers in that category were out of the labor force.

Now, it’s certainly true that for women whose partners earn more than $250,000, money might seem secondary. And, to be fair, who cares if wealthier women don’t work? Especially if their families are pulling in $200K, $300K, $400K a year.

But think about it a different way: If men dominate partner positions in law firms, corner offices, venture capital firms, who makes decisions about how those companies operate? Or who gets funded? Or what products to create?

Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan, has noted that gender roles are changing somewhat and that men are indeed stepping up to do more housework and child care. Still, she told me in 2020, women generally do even more.


“Women seem to be a little bit less willing, less able, in a game of chicken, if the guy is driving towards the cliff of not feeding the children, and the woman is driving towards the cliff of not feeding the children, she pulls off first and she feeds the children,” Stevenson said. “And the problem is that if he knows that she’s going to pull off first, then he wins the game of chicken.”

That, she notes, pushes us back toward a more old-fashioned set of roles.

And the last couple of years may widen preexisting disparities.

Early in the pandemic, noted a recent McKinsey report, women felt only slightly more burnt out than men. By 2021, that gap had nearly doubled. More than 40 percent of women reported feeling burnt out most or all of the time.

A report by the Boston Women’s Workforce Council found that at “the highest ranks, female executives made $90,000 less in annual compensation. But that number balloons to $280,000, if you count the cash bonus.”

Goldin — herself a model for a generation of powerful female economists — says she remains an optimist. Female participation in the workforce is similar to what it was in 2019, she points out.

And the pandemic has made it clear that last-minute work trips to Zurich or Tokyo might not be necessary. And that the time-suck of commuting isn’t imperative. Both of which could benefit high-ranking women who also have family responsibilities.


Plus, there’s been a lot of talk about the fact that, as Stevenson puts it, “childcare is not just a personal problem.” (As we’ve seen over the last couple of years, if you want to see a labor force in crisis, try giving parents no place to put their kids.)

Ultimately, solving the gender gap created by “greedy jobs” will depend on both policy shifts and personal shifts.

Employers will have to be less greedy. Women will have to be willing to relinquish some of their household-related responsibilities, and men will have to be willing to pick up some of those responsibilities.

“We’ve talked for a long time about workplace flexibility, and the important ways in which we should allow people to navigate back and forth,” Stevenson said. “But it’s really been a lot of cheap talk. If you don’t ‘lean in’ the whole time, you don’t make it to the top. But leaning in the whole time is really, really hard if you want to take time to really engage with your children. And that’s true for men and for women.”

Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @karaemiller.