In my last post I touched on some of the factors behind enduring gender gaps in the workplace: gender differences in lifestyle preferences, bias, and so on. Today I’ll discuss one factor you probably haven’t heard much about before: men and women’s leadership experiences in high school.

In a discussion paper released last month, economists Michael R. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute and Douglas A. Webber of Temple University and the Institute for the Study of Labor used data from the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 to investigate how people’s participation in high school clubs was related to their income and occupation fourteen years down the road, when respondents were in their early thirties. Clubs were defined widely to include hobby clubs, honorary groups, student government, vocational education clubs, as well as band, choir, debating, drama, school newspaper, yearbook, and more; however, sports were not included (more on that below).

Strain and Webber found that, controlling for background traits such as demographics, test scores, and high school fixed effects, working women who had served as club officers enjoyed a wage premium of approximately 8 percent relative to male counterparts. Moreover, they explain, “high-school leadership explains roughly 10 percent of the residual gender wage gap observed in the early career jobs” of the respondents. Adding a control for industry and occupation renders the link statistically insignificant, which the researchers say implies that the leadership effect has to do with industry or occupation choice. Indeed, “virtually the entire gender gap in the proportion of management and nonmanagement workers is eliminated when looking only at those with high school leadership experience.”

There are two main interpretations of these findings, Strain and Webber note. First, the link between high school leadership experience and the gender wage gap could be causal: It might mean that “women, on average, receive a differential benefit than men [from high school club leadership] because they had fewer opportunities than men to develop the human capital associated with pre-labor-market-entry leadership roles. This leads them to choose more financially rewarding careers in traditionally male-dominated fields, and to earn more (on average) across occupations.”

Alternatively, the apparent link could be “a proxy for personality characteristics”:

In this case, differences over preferences governing competitiveness, financial ambition, or negotiating salary may drive a certain type of person to seek out leadership positions prior to labor market entry and to make correlated labor market choices, such as engaging in salary negotiations. This type of person tends to choose more financially rewarding careers, such as management roles, and, on average, is more likely to be male.

In any event, the researchers believe their results suggest that direct discrimination in the labor market may play a smaller role than believed in giving rise to gender wage gaps. However, they do raise the possibility that discrimination earlier in life helps determine which high school students gain leadership experience.

To me the most surprising part of the paper was the fact that high school athletics were barely mentioned. My own leadership experience in high school came from sports teams, and at least at my high school, sports teams were far more time-consuming (and presumably personality-forming) than most clubs. Further, I knew that former high-school athletes have higher wages and higher-status careers than their peers. When I contacted coauthor Douglas Webber about the omission, he told me that, in developing the paper, he and Michael Strain “did look at both athletic participation and holding a leadership role on an athletic team, and found no impact on the future gender wage gap.” He commented: “This was very surprising to me. I had expected this athletic effect to be potentially even larger than the club/leadership effect given the age of the survey and where women’s athletics were 40 years ago relative to today.”

As a matter of fact, the subjects of Webber and Strain’s paper graduated high school within weeks of Title IX’s enactment on June 23, 1972. Their sports-related (non-)finding is particularly surprising in light of economist Betsey Stevenson’s 2010 working paper showing that the post–Title IX increase in women’s athletic participation had implications for women’s educational attainment and careers:

Analysis of differences in outcomes across states in changes between pre- and post-[Title IX–]cohorts reveals that a 10-percentage point rise in state-level female sports participation generates a 1 percentage point increase in female college attendance and a 1 to 2 percentage point rise in female labor force participation. Furthermore, greater opportunities to play sports leads to greater female participation in previously male-dominated occupations, particularly in high-skill occupations.

Webber’s comments also raise an important point about the relevance of his and Strain’s study today. It is intuitively plausible that high school leadership experiences are still linked to later success in the labor market, but women’s opportunities have expanded so much—and the economy has changed so much—since 1972 that it may be unwise to apply their conclusions to the present day. Besides, in my book, high school is a time to do what you enjoy, not to sweat about maximizing your career potential.