April 14 is this year’s Equal Pay Day, chosen because it marks the point in 2015 when women’s earnings finally reach parity with what men earned in 2014. Women’s pay is, on average, significantly lower than men’s for many reasons, including choice of degree or career, hours worked, and discrimination by sexist employers—but not all women are affected equally. Lesbians, while still earning significantly less than straight men, actually outperform their straight female counterparts.
The breakdown is as follows: On average, for every dollar earned by a man in a heterosexual couple, a woman in a heterosexual couple earns 63 cents, while a woman in a same-sex couple earns 79 cents (same-sex coupled men earn 98 cents), according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, which was based on findings in a 2013 report by The Williams Institute’s Gary J. Gates. This is true despite evidence that lesbians, along with gay men, experience more discrimination in the workplace than heterosexuals do; they also have less job satisfaction. While the exact combinations of factors that lead to a wage premium for U.S. lesbians aren’t thoroughly understood, potential explanations can tell us a lot about the ways in which sexism, cultural influences, and individual choices combine to give us the unequal workplace landscape we see today.
How can lesbians still come out ahead, even in an environment that continues to discriminate against both women and gays? Let’s credit our old friend “a variety of factors.” Since lesbians are free from the expectation that women’s careers should take a backseat to those of their male partners’, they can prioritize their jobs without compromising their ability to find a mate. After they’re coupled, there’s no built-in assumption about whose career ought to come first when both partners are women—and either way a woman’s career is prioritized. Even today, lesbians are less likely to interrupt their careers to have children or to experience an unplanned pregnancy, which could affect their career goals and the level they rise to in the workplace. Lesbian women may also feel less constrained by the dominant culture’s expectations about the way women are supposed to be, freeing them to consider better-paying, male-dominated fields at higher rates than other women do.
In addition, lesbians may benefit from being perceived by others as masculine. I’ve written previously about the ways in which our culture’s positive associations with masculinity can largely cancel out the negative associations with homosexuality, making it hard to judge whether it’s tougher to be a butch lesbian or a femme one. Anecdotally, femme friends have told me that simply being an out lesbian can confer an “honorary male” status in some social situations—in light of this, it seems likely that being gay and female partially mitigates sexist stereotyping by men, even for women who aren’t overtly masculine. This is borne out by data that suggests lesbians seeking employment in male-dominated fields earn more interviews and are offered higher salaries than gay men are. (The same study indicates that lesbians face far more discrimination in fields that are traditionally female, such as nursing and child care. Those fields also tend to come with lower pay.)
All is not necessarily rosy for queer women, however. In spite of earning higher average pay, lesbians are still far more likely to be poor than either straight women or the general population, according to Center for American Progress. The CAP analysis goes on to explain that this is particularly true for older lesbians, lesbians of color, and lesbians who are raising children. The situation for lesbians is also far worse in states that lack employment protections for LGBTQ workers—in places where such protections exist, the poverty rate for female couples is very close to that of male-female pairings. Any benefits to being lesbian are canceled out when couples’ earnings are considered in aggregate—there, lesbians fare the worst of anyone, while gay male couples end up outearning heterosexual ones.
While it has become fashionable to disparage Lean In-style exhortations for women to push harder for their own advancement, the data on lesbian earning power suggest that discrimination and sexism are not the only culprits in the continuing existence of a wage gap between men and women—if they were, lesbians would be expected to earn less than straight women do, because they face discrimination for both their femaleness and their gayness. Because lesbians are not a privileged group in our society, their relative workplace successes must be at least partially attributable to differences in their career choices and priorities. Heterosexuality, and the desire to attract a male partner, seems to act like a millstone around the necks of straight women, preventing them from achieving their full potential. For lesbians, we see some of that lost potential being tapped, even in the face of continuing discrimination in the work environment. Of course, it’s still vital to fight sexism in all its forms—women cannot close the pay gap through their own individual efforts alone. But that doesn’t mean those efforts are in vain. Straight women could learn a thing or two from lesbians.