The gender wage gap is well-documented — women in the United States, on average, are paid less than men, even when working the same occupation. A 2023 study from the US Department of Labor notes that when comparing the median earnings of full-time workers, women are paid 84 cents for every dollar paid to men. 

But wages are just one of the gaps between genders in the workplace, especially among lower paying jobs. New research from Columbia Business School shows that women are more likely to experience their work as more meaningful than men do.

In a study that analyzed survey data from workers in Sweden, CBS’s Vanessa Burbano, the Sidney Taurel Associate Professor of Business, and Stephan Meier, the James P. Gorman Professor of Business, found that the gap partially stems from women-dominated jobs having more of a societal benefit when compared to jobs dominated by men. Uppsala University Professor Olle Folke and Stockholm University Professor Johanna Rickne were also co-authors on the study.

“We were really interested in differences in jobs beyond monetary compensation,” Meier says. “Jobs differ in autonomy, flexibility, in the social impact that they have. We wanted to research whether there are significant differences in how women experience their jobs and how men experience their jobs.”.

The researchers used data from the Swedish Work Environment Survey, an anonymous biannual survey administered by the Swedish government that allows individual workers to self-report labor conditions and which can be matched to jobs held by these workers. Though US labor market data are not as thorough, the findings are consistent with recent research on US workers, where the meaningfulness gap has also been growing slowly over time.

For their main analysis, the researchers looked at surveys conducted between 1991 and 2019 that were stratified for income, sex, occupation, industry, and social class, the results of which show that the largest gaps in meaningfulness occur among workers at the lowest income levels.

“It’s not just the mission or impact that could be meaningful; it could also be what you do on a daily basis — how much autonomy you have in that job or how much you can use your skills to the optimal level,” Meier adds. “Corporate culture and relatedness can also make a job much more meaningful and much less meaningful.”

At the opposite end of the income spectrum, the researchers found that the meaningfulness gap between men and women was relatively small, where the gender wage gap is wider.

Burbano and Meier explain the gap is likely due to differences in the types of jobs men and women are likely to occupy. Working as a nurse at a children’s hospital, for example, is a lower paid job often worked by women. On the flip side, similarly low-paying manufacturing jobs are often worked by men.

“Most of this gender difference in experience of meaning is really driven by differences in experience of this sort of prosocial impact of the job — the extent to which you feel like it’s benefiting others or benefitting society,” Burbano says.

Regardless of gender, workers employed in jobs that are prosocial in nature are more likely to experience their work as more meaningful when compared to those in jobs with less beneficial societal impact. Still, among men and women in the same prosocial fields, women are likely to find more meaning in their work, according to Burbano and Meier.

The researchers emphasize that while their findings help shine a light on some of the nuances of interpreting the gender gap at work, it should not be used to explain away the gender wage gap. Instead, workers and leaders should be aware that the gender gap in both wages and meaningfulness are multifaceted in their causes.

“To understand well-being at work and inequality at work, it’s important to take a look at a number of different factors, not just differences in wages,” Burbano says.