Study Examines Male-Female Wage Gap, Post-M.B.A.

University of Chicago findings show a significant disparity 10 to 15 years after graduation.

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If the record number of women entering business school this fall is something to celebrate—and I firmly believe that it is—we mustn't forget the "thorns" I alluded to in closing last week's post. During these uncertain economic times, perhaps no subject is pricklier than paychecks. Why Women are Worth (Less), published recently on Huffington Post's website, looks at the findings of a study of University of Chicago M.B.A.s—selected so as to compare "apples to apples" when it came to gender disparities by controlling for everything from b-school classes to GPA, job experience to hours worked. While labor economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz discovered only modest wage gaps for newly minted M.B.A.s, tipping of course in favor of men, the salary disparity hit 40 percent 10 to 15 years down the line.

[Read about how business schools hope to shatter the glass ceiling.]

The researchers cited women's propensity to take time off work for childcare as a main contributor to the income gap, but not everyone is buying that argument. A survey of 9,927 M.B.A. graduates conducted by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes opportunities for women in business, first job placement, and compensation, reveals some surprising gender differences in career outcome.

Two key findings—that men were more likely to start their first post-M.B.A. job in higher positions than women, and that women's average post-M.B.A. salary was lower than men's—held true even when those surveyed had no children. "From their very first job after getting their M.B.A. degree, women made less money than men," Ilene Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst, says in an interview with National Public Radio. "On average, they were paid $4,600 less."

[See 10 business schools that lead to jobs.]

On the IT Business Edge blog, columnist Don Tennant spoke at length with Catalyst's director of research, Christine Silva, about why male M.B.A. grads have had it better. One factor seems to play a crucial role in women's advancement on the job compared to men: sponsorship. According to Catalyst's latest report, Sponsoring Women to Success, effective sponsorship is critical to accelerating a woman's career—from getting her noticed by senior-level executives to being considered for her company's top jobs.

"A mentor is a person who provides advice and guidance, and that's very important for someone's personal and professional development," Silva tells Tennant. "But a sponsor is critical for advancement. A sponsor is someone who has a seat at the decision-making table and advocates on your behalf when it comes to promotions or development opportunities." Although both women and men in the survey had mentors, the men's tended to be more senior—and the more senior your mentor or adviser, the more your career advances and your salary grows, Silva says.

[See top executives in M.B.A. classrooms.]

Previous research shows that women can be penalized for exhibiting self-promoting behavior considered acceptable in men but unappealing in women. Because good sponsors recognize and reward talented employees by speaking up on their behalf, sponsorship can help high-performing female employees subvert this double bind.

"Good sponsors can supercharge a woman's career by providing her with access to essential networks, bringing her achievements to the attention of senior-level executives, and recommending her for key assignments," says Lang in a statement announcing the findings. "Effective sponsors also provide career coaching and guidance that enable protégés to make broader and more strategic contributions to their organizations."

The benefits of sponsorship for women cannot be overstated. In fact, a 2011 study from the Center for Worklife Policy and published by the Harvard Business Review found that sponsorship can result in as much as a 30 percent increase in promotions, pay raises, and stretch assignments for a protégé. Women entering b-school today would benefit enormously from reading this study, which can be downloaded as a free .pdf.

[Browse U.S. News's rankings of top business schools.]

Whether the post-M.B.A. pay gap stems from lower-level sponsors, unconscious bias, an averseness to salary negotiations, or choice of industry, efforts to maintain a healthy pipeline of women into senior leadership must continue. As companies start to make concrete changes to equalize their hiring and promoting practices, women need to become more assertive in asking for what they deserve. After all, men do it all the time.