Becoming a doctor, lawyer or CEO will likely earn you a higher paycheck. But if you’re a woman, you may still earn less than your colleagues. A lot less.

Even in high-paying fields, American women still earn less than their male counterparts. And in some cases, the pay gap between men and women is even more pronounced.

Just look at medicine: One survey estimates the average female doctor earns $105,000 less than her male colleague, a gap that’s been widening over time. The C-suite is plagued with a similar problem: A 2017 analysis estimated male executives earn millions of dollars more than women. And most recently, a new study reveals that male lawyers can earn 53% more than their female partners.

Executive Brief

  • Even in the highest-paying professions, women can’t catch up to their male counterparts.
  • While women are making more money in these fields, things like negotiation biases and fewer professional connections hold them back.
  • In law, for example, one survey estimates men can make hundreds of thousands of dollars more than women.

  • The compensation models in some high-paying professions may be to blame. Pay that’s based on negotiation, client networks and company share payouts means hundreds of thousands of dollars could separate men and women in these top-paying fields, says Ariane Hegewisch, research director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

    “It’s much more so in professional jobs than say, if you work as a cashier,” Hegewisch says. “You typically do not have to negotiate your salary [in a low-paying job]. But in professional work, there is an element of negotiation.”

    Less bargaining power and fewer connections

    Women who don’t negotiate at all are at a disadvantage, especially compared to male counterparts who do. But even those who do ask for more often have less negotiating power than men. In some cases, women can even be penalized for bringing up the issue. Because women are rewarded if they appear likeable or stereotypically feminine, studies show employers may balk when a woman asks for a raise or higher salary.

    Compensation in high-paying law firms relies heavily on origination, or “books of business,” according to the law study. Because many women have less access to these expensive clients, their overall compensation takes a massive hit.

    But the problem doesn’t end with law firms.

    “It’s a bigger issue than just the legal industry,” says Jeffrey Lowe, global practice leader of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s law firm practice and author of the study on law compensation. “It just seems like no matter what industry you look at, you have these kinds of [gender pay gap] issues.”

    The same effect shapes compensation in the C-suite, where men ultimately make more than women as they receive other forms of compensation, like stock options or greater chunks of equity in the company. Because there are fewer women in these positions to begin with, they’re seen as a rarity — and that ultimately impacts their ability to ask for and get more.

    “In finance, women are essentially being as productive, but they’re not getting the payoff because they’re not getting onto the accounts or the clients that they’re needing to,” says Pamela Coukos, former senior adviser at the Department of Labor and CEO of Working Ideal, a company that provides consulting on inclusive workplaces.

    A million-dollar difference

    In the law survey, male partners reported earning $959,000 on average, compared to the $627,000 reported by women. Male compensation increased year after year, as they upped hourly rates and booked more clients. Meanwhile, female partners reported a decline in their overall compensation.

    The problem can be traced back to the very beginning of a woman’s career. Research shows a lack of access to leadership can result in fewer women making their way up the corporate ladder. As more men become managers, their compensation far exceeds that of women, their former peers.

    “For women, there are fewer women partners than male partners at these law firms, so fewer mentorship opportunities for people who are like them,” Lowe says. “Women will also tell you, notwithstanding the strides I think have been made in society, there is still a sense that the old boy’s club can still be hard to crack. If you’re not part of it, you’re missing out on the opportunity to inherit clients that a male partner might be able to.”

    Hegewisch points out that there is still a pay gap in wage work, particularly when the industry is female-dominated. But comparing the gap between, say, stock clerks and order fillers — where women make 94 cents for every dollar a man earns — and financial advisers, where women make 44 cents to every dollar their male colleagues earn — shows that no matter how high-paying the profession, women are losing out.