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Male CEOs Get Bonuses; Female CEOs Get Blame

When companies do well, male executives reap the rewards at a far greater rate than their female counterparts. But when business turns bad, it’s women who suffer the greatest financial consequences.

That’s the conclusion of new research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Three economists looked at more than a decade’s worth of data to figure out why women in business — even those able to break into the executive suite — still earn far less than men on average. The key factor, according to their analysis: performance pay, a theoretically meritocratic system that, in practice, ends up rewarding those already in charge.

That finding could have implications beyond the executives suite because performance pay is becoming more common at junior levels. In an interview with Bloomberg, author Stefania Albanesi said that means companies need to start tackling pay disparities early, before they have the chance to start adding up.

“The accumulation is going to be there even when women get promoted, and also possibly if you move to another firm, because usually your past compensation is used in some degree,” Albanesi said. “These differences can be very, very persistent.”

Albanesi and her co-authors looked at compensation data for more than 40,000 executives at publicly traded companies in the U.S. between 1992 and 2005. Of those, just 1,312 — 3.2 percent — were women. And the typical woman in the group earned 14 percent less than the typical male executive. (The gap is even wider when looking at average rather than median pay.)

The vast majority of that gap is explained by so-called incentive pay, compensation linked to a company’s performance, such as bonuses and stock options. The disparity adds up over time: Since men get granted more stock than women, they benefit more when a company performs well. The authors refer to these accumulated gains as an executive’s “firm-specific wealth”; a $1 million increase in a company’s value adds $17,150 to a male executive’s wealth, but just $1,670 to a woman’s.

But while male executives benefit more when their companies do well, it’s women who suffer more when their companies do badly. If a firm loses 1 percent of its value, women’s firm-specific wealth falls 63 percent, while men’s falls just 33 percent.

That may seem paradoxical: If men’s pay is more closely linked to their companies’ success, then they should be more exposed to bad news as well as good. But the authors argue that logic misunderstands how executive pay works. Incentive pay is often billed as “pay for performance,” but in practice, executives have lots of ways to game the system. For example, chief executives often play a major role in choosing members of the board of directors, who in turn set the CEO’s pay.

For various reasons, women are at a disadvantage in the corporate-pay game. “The fact that female top executives perceive limited access to informal networks, gender stereotyping, an inhospitable corporate culture, jointly with their younger age and lower tenure, suggests that they might be considerably less entrenched and exert lower control on their own compensation than their male counterparts on average,” the authors write. In other words: Executive pay practices are inefficient, and inefficient in a way that benefits men over women.

One common criticism of gender-gap analyses is that they fail to account for differences between male and female workers that have nothing to do with sex. Female executives are, on average, younger and less senior; they are also more common in certain industries or types of companies, which might tend to pay less. But in this paper, the authors control for age, title and the company where the executives work.

The other possibility, of course, is that women earn less incentive pay because they don’t perform as well. But the researchers looked at that too: “There is no link between standard measures of firm performance and female representation in the team of top executives,” they write.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.