Women are systemically underpaid in part because they consciously or unknowingly make choices in their careers that lead to being paid less down the line, an author and educator says.

Warren Farrell, author of a half-dozen books including Why Men Earn More, told the CBC's Lang & O'Leary Exchange recently that his research shows the well-documented tendency of women to be paid less than their male counterparts is more a result of individual actions than of chronic, widespread gender discrimination in the workplace.

His latest book outlines 25 choices that female workers tend to make that often lead to them being underpaid down the line. Conversely, those choices often lead to more balanced, happier lives.

"Really, men should be learning from women," he says.

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Warren Farrell disputes the conventional wisdom about the wage gap between men and women. (iStock)

In general, men tend to make career-related decisions (including choices such as what profession to go into, and whether or not to accept a competing job offer) because they lead to higher salaries down the line. Women, on the other hand, tend to take the opposite choice in the 25 examples of decisions he lists, and as such are paid less.

In instances where they make the same choices, they are often compensated the same, he says.

He cites the widely held belief that female surgeons earn less money than male doctors do. "But it's actually a gap between married men with kids and married women with kids," he says.

He notes that in the U.S., the data show that never-married female doctors with no children earn an average of 17 per cent more than never-married men with no kids — "even when you have the same education and the same number of hours worked."

While it's true that across the board, American women earn 24 per cent less than male workers, Farrell's argument is that's a result of choices made along the line, not primarily because of a systemic bias.

If employers could simply get a woman, for 75 cents, to do the same work as a man who would cost a dollar, everyone would do it, he says, which is what spurred his research into the field.

'The road to high pay is a toll road.'—Warren Farrell

"The discrimination is not about gender per se," he says. "That's important to remember, because then it frees women up to say, 'What are things I can do, and what are the tradeoffs?'"

He cites other examples where women out-earn their male counterparts. Female sales engineers earn on average 141 per cent of what men in the same field do, "partly because they're so good at communicating," Farrell says.

"When they combine that with an engineering background as a skill set, they do well."

Farrell's work has stirred up its fair share of controversy from critics who accuse him of being anti-woman. A recent address he was slated to give at the University of Toronto was met with protests. The event proceeded only after police provided a corridor so people could enter and exit.

On the other hand, he has also served as a board member for the U.S. National Organization for Women, and many people have given him credit for arming women with usable information to help them get whatever they want out of their careers.

But "the road to high pay is a toll road," he says.

Click the player above to watch his interview or click here to watch it in a new window.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Professor Warren Farrell's event at U of T was cancelled amid protests. In fact, it was allowed to proceed after police were able to provide a corridor so people could enter and exit safely.
    Apr 29, 2012 1:41 AM ET