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Apparently, when it comes to the wage gap, it’s the time-out that kicks us in the pocketbook. That’s the word from labor economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, experts on the gender wage discrepancy, answering questions in Thursday’s NYTimes Freakonomics column. They’ve got some darn good data.

If you’re a numbers geek like me, you’ll be fascinated. You’ll also be a little bit pissed off. We’ve become used to that seventy-seven cents on the dollar business. But really, it ‘s worse than that. In a study of University of Chicago MBA’s — which allowed Goldin and Katz to compare “apples to apples”, controlling for everything from biz school courses to job experience to hours worked when it came to gender disparities — they found that for new MBAs, there was a just a modest wage gap — favoring men, of course — out of the blocks. But here’s where it starts to stink:

Fast forward 10 to 15 years, and the earnings gap between our male and female MBApples is about 40% for those who were observationally equivalent at graduation. But almost all of that huge difference can be fully explained by the greater number of career interruptions and lower weekly hours experienced by the women (mind you, they still work a large number of hours). One of the reasons for the large gap in earnings between male and female MBAs is that the cost of career interruptions is very great in the corporate and financial sectors. These costs are considerably lower in medicine, and somewhat lower in law and academia.

Hello, 40 percent?! You can guess what “career interruptions” means: everything from maternity leave to working reduced hours (read some variation of the eight-to-ten hour day) so you can be there for your kids’ soccer games or doctor’s appointments, or taking care of Grandma. You might think it looks like women are penalized for being, well, women. You might be right.

Which makes me wonder. Why don’t the M(en)Ba’s pick up some of this slack? Why aren’t they expected to? And we wonder why women have seven layers of stress when it comes to career decisions — or lack of same?

On the other hand — and there is always one — there’s some good news hidden here as well. Even if you earn less than your male mates due to your time outs, professional women are still likely to do okay, at least according to Goldin and Katz. They note that research shows that even if we women do get screwed financially for taking time with our families, working in the professions still gives us a layer of protection. (The authors note that 35 percent of female pediatricians, for example, work part-time. Presumably they are doing well.). In response to a question from Lisa, who saw her MBA as a way to give her leverage as a mom, the authors responded:

The vast majority of MBA moms are just like Lisa – in the workforce, occasionally part-time, often self-employed, working for firms with generous family policies and making a lot of dough. They may not be making as much as their male peers who are working full-time, but they are, just as Lisa notes, doing very well in securing their futures and keeping a toe-hold in the business. In our sample, the fraction of MBA moms 10 to 16 years out who were working part-time was equivalent to the fraction who were no longer in the labor force. And about half of the part-timers were self-employed.

What Goldin and Katz don’t measure is whether those MBA moms are happy with their trade-offs. Quite possibly, they are — to tiptoe back to Shannon’s post from yesterday — measuring their lives on something more meaningful  than Manolos or Malbecs or the weight of their paychecks. If so, it just may be that they’ve figured out how to beat the boys at their own game: These MBA moms, they have their career. But they also have their lives.

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