How and Why Religion Influences the Gender Wage Gap

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Eighty-two days into this year, or March 24, 2021, working women finally earned what their male counterparts did in 2020. Yes, that means, women are paid 82 cents for every U.S. dollar paid to a man also working full-time and year-round, according to AAUW.

Elizabeth Campell

There are many factors as to why the gap persists. One that’s been overlooked? The impact of beliefs and practices reinforced by the world’s major religions, according to research by Carlson School Assistant Professor Elizabeth Campbell and Traci Sitzmann, associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver.

In a study published in the Academy of Management Journal, the researchers found that how religious a community affects the size of the gender wage gap. This is partly explained by the fact that each of the world’s major religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Folk, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism—promote starker and more differentiated gender roles, shaping social norms, and affecting the workplace.

“It’s not that one religion is better or worse, with respect to the gender wage gap,” says Campbell, also a Lawrence Fellow. “It’s just whether religion is crucial to people’s day-to-day.”

Campbell and Sitzmann, who earned the 2021 Responsible Research in Management Award, studied the gender wage gap in all 50 U.S. states and 140 countries, finding that:

  • In nations where 95% or more of the population reported religion as an important part of their daily lives (e.g., Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka), women earn only 46 percent of what men do.
  • In nations where 20 percent or less of the population indicated the importance of religion (e.g., Estonia, Sweden, and Denmark), women earn 75 percent of men’s wages.

The United States is 101st among the countries for its religiosity and 90th for the size of its gender wage gap. Campbell and Sitzmann then compared the wage gap in each U.S. state to its religious attendance. “We found that in less-religious states, the wage gap decreased faster than in more-religious states,” explains Campbell. In the paper, Campbell and Sitzmann estimate the wage gap will close in 28 years in secular states, but not for 109 years in more religious states.

A telling example is the state of Utah. Sixty percent of residents there are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s also home to one of the largest wage gaps in the U.S., with women making less than 70 percent of what men do.

In a separate analysis for the Salt Lake Tribune, Campbell found that the wage gap is closing fastest in Connecticut, New Mexico, Delaware, Michigan, and Oregon. The slowest movers are Louisiana, South Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama. In an interview with the paper she noted that “the fastest five are narrowing the gender wage gap more than 12 times faster than the slowest five, on average.”

Being aware of religion as a factor in the gender wage gap is the start. To counteract its role, Campbell and Sitzmann also tested an experimental intervention to identify potential remedies. Results from controlled experimental interventional revealed the benefit of managers and policymakers explicitly support both men and women to be actively involved in their children’s lives, implement strict sexual harassment policies, and invest in female leaders’ career development to mitigate biases in wage allocation, boost transparency, and promote accountability--even in religious cultures.

“You can still have religious norms and faith as part of the culture,” says Campbell. “But you need to also block the effect of such norms from impacting how women’s work is valued compared to men’s. You need to overemphasize gender-egalitarian policies.”

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 Discovery magazine

In this issue, Carlson School faculty research studies the wisdom of the crowds, the role of religion in the gender wage gap, the impact of cash injections, and highlights many others areas where our research has had an important impact.

Summer 2021 table of contents