single and careerThere are all sorts of beliefs floating around about what contributes to your success in a career. Some of these urban legends are about characteristics that are not exactly relevant to your ability to do your job. Is it true that they really do matter?

In U. S. News & World Report, Jada Graves investigated three examples of the conventional wisdom around lifestyles and career advantages. Two are sort of interesting, but the third is a myth I have been whacking at for years – that married workers deserve higher pay.

The urban legend about married people deserving their fatter paychecks is the first that Graves addressed. I’ll get to that soon. First, though, I’ll list the other two. You can think about them while you read about the pay gap, then I’ll tell you what Graves said about them at the end of this post.

Is it true that…

  • Bald men wield more power in the office?
  • Handsome employees earn handsome paychecks?

So about those married people getting paid more…

Graves begins with Census Bureau statistics showing that for 2011, for people between ages 18 and 64 working full-time,

  • Married men got paid a median of about $56,000 per year. Single men got paid about $35,000 per year
  • Married women got paid about $40,000 per year. Single women, around $33,000.

The typical talking points used to justify these differences maintain that married men are supporting a family and married men and women have kids to raise. Graves is having none of that, and offers this verdict about the urban legend that married workers deserve higher pay:

“False. Many married people are now part of a dual-income household. And while couples often have children to support, so do many solo workers; there are approximately 13.6 million single parents in this country, the Census Bureau reports.”

I think that the workplace should be about work, and not about marital or parental status. You should get paid on the basis of work-relevant criteria, such as the quality of the work that you do. To do anything else is singlism, discrimination against people who are single. Singlism’s cousin – the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who do not have children – is relevant here, too. (There is a section of the Singlism book on that type of discrimination – paperback is here and e-book is here.)

As a social scientist who likes rigorous analyses, I prefer to compare people who are similar on every other dimension other than marital status, and then see if the married people are still paid more. So, for example, if two men are the same on criteria such as their parental status, their seniority, and the quality of their work, do married men still get paid more than single men? The answer is a very clear yes, and that’s a very clear example of singlism. (For women, the answer is less clear and consistent across studies.) I discussed the relevant studies in Singled Out (paper here; ebook here). One of the highlights was a study that compared identical twin pairs in which one man was single and the other married. You can’t get two men more similar than the ones in those pairs. In that study, the married men were paid 26 percent more than the single men.

Now, as promised, here are Jada Graves’ verdicts on the other two urban legends. I’m just passing along what she said and not analyzing her conclusions. My thing is singlehood, not baldness or beauty.

About bald men wielding more power:

The verdict: True. Though [Wharton Business School professor] Mannes is careful to point out that balding men aren’t offered the same respect. “Men described with naturally thinning hair were viewed less favorably on a host of traits, whereas men described with a shaved head were viewed favorably,” he says. “Shaving is a proactive, agentic act. That is what I believe leads to the differences.”

About attractive employees getting paid more:

The verdict: All-of-the-time unfair, but some-of-the-time true.

Career compass photo available from Shutterstock