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3 Myths About Working Women

·Senior Columnist

Working women have been a growing force in the economy for three decades, as more women graduate from college, take professional jobs and influence household spending decisions. In some important ways, women even outpace men. They fared better during the recent recession, for instance, and women now earn the majority of bachelor’s and advanced degrees.

A few indicators, however, suggest that women’s economic gains have been frustratingly limited. Perhaps the most prominent is a stubborn "gender wage gap" that seems to leave women earning less than men for comparable work. According to one oft-quoted study, women still earn 23% less than men, a deficit that has produced heated debate over workplace policies, family priorities and the changing nature of motherhood (and compelled a lot of men to simply keep their mouths shut).

New research by compensation analysts at Payscale might hearten working women while lowering the temperature on the whole issue. Payscale crunched numbers on pay and other factors in dozens of fields and extracted insights that suggest women are making larger strides than are often recognized. Here are three enduring notions about working women that might need to be reexamined:

Women earn far less than men. On an aggregate basis this is true, but Payscale controlled for a variety of factors and found that the pay gap is far narrower among men and women who have similar levels of experience, work in the same fields and locations, have the same skills and certifications and are otherwise workplace clones. Among non-managerial workers, Payscale found no pay gap at all, on an apples-to-apples basis. At more senior levels, women do earn slightly less than men, but the biggest gap was only 8.5% -- far lower than the frequently mentioned 23%. And that gap may exist because top male executives put in more hours, travel more and spend more time with clients than their female counterparts, which is hard to measure among salaried employees.

As other pay experts have pointed out, women tend to earn less overall because they are more likely to work in fields such as health care, education and social work that pay less than male-dominated fields such as vocational trades, engineering and financial services. But women don't go into the workforce blindly, and they often know the tradeoffs.

"Women consider a lot of factors and not just monetary benefits," points out Katie Bardaro, lead economist for Payscale. "Many women choose jobs with a certain level of flexibility." And that, incidentally, often benefits the men in their lives.

Women don't "lean in." Facebook (FB) executive Sheryl Sandberg famously encouraged women to be more aggressive about getting ahead in her recent bestseller "Lean In." But the assumption that working women are more timid than their male counterparts is a flimsy one. Payscale found that women were just as likely to ask for a raise as men at every income level up to $100,000 -- and slightly more likely in some cases. As women become more senior, they also become more likely to ask for a raise, but men outpace them on aggressiveness as they rise on the career ladder.

So the real message for ambitious women might be, lean in further and further the more you get ahead.

Women only do well in "female-dominated" industries. Large differences in the proportion of men and women in different fields suggests that some women may deliberately avoid male-dominated industries, perhaps because they feel they will be unwelcome there. But Payscale's data show that women in several traditional male industries earn just as much as the fellas. In jobs such as security manager, mechanical drafter, mechanical engineer, information technology assistant, computer repair technician and civil engineer, Payscale found no wage gap at all. And in many other industries, the gap was small.

Women still face the fact of being the only sex able to bear children, which can clearly disrupt a career, no matter what the data say. Still, young women choosing a career may have more good options than they realize. And women who are more established in their careers might be rewarded more than they think for cranking up their ambitions. Before long, it might be the guys who have to lean in more.

Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.