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Women and the Law: Earnings Gap

The earnings gap has narrowed but still exists at all levels.

Has the earnings gap


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changed over time?

Answer Yes. In 1979, women earned 59.7 percent of the annual salary earned by men. In 1996, women earned 74 percent of the annual salary earned by men. The earnings gap has narrowed when we look at the hourly and weekly salary statistics as well.

Over the 41-year period that this issue has been studied, women's earnings have increased by 1.3 percent, while men's earnings have grown by 1.1 percent. Researchers have suggested that much of the gap has disappeared because the skill of working women, as measured by education and experience, increased relative to the skill of working men. Research also suggests that job experience had a greater impact than education.

But despite the increase in education and experience held by women workers, the wage gap has not disappeared. And statistics suggest that the wage gap has narrowed at times not because the wages of women have risen, but because men's real wages (those measured in constant dollars) have fallen. Between 1973 and 1985, real earnings for women increased by almost two percent, while real earnings for men fell 10.7 percent. Between 1985 and 1990, the wage gap continued to narrow, reaching 75 percent for women who worked full time and year round. But between 1991 and 1996, the gap increased, falling to between 70 and 72 percent, rising in 1996 to 73.8 percent.

Cite: U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Earnings as a Percent of Men's, 1979-1996; U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Facts on Working Women, Earnings Differences Between Women and Men; U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Equal Pay: A Thirty-Five Year Perspective

Do men and women earn equal salaries when they work in the same occupations?

Answer Women generally earn less than men even when they hold the same jobs. Statistics for weekly wages in 1997 showed that women earned less than men in 99 percent of all occupations for which data are available.

Sometimes, in some categories of employment, the earnings gap disappears for a time. For example, in 1992, women earned 104 percent of the median weekly salary earned by men employed in nursing; women constituted 93.5 percent of all people in this occupation. This phenomenon was not limited to job categories where women predominated. For example, women mechanics earned 105.4 percent of men's salary, although they constituted only 3.3 percent of the profession.

In the 10 leading occupations for women during the years 1985 through 1997, men earned higher median weekly earnings in every job category, in every year.

Wage Gap in 20 Leading Occupations of Employed Women (1999)

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Facts on Working Women, Earnings Differences Between Women and Men; U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Equal Pay: A Thirty-Five Year Perspective

Can factors other than discrimination account for the wage gap?

Answer It is possible that other factors contribute to the wage gap. For example, seniority tends to raise income, all other factors remaining constant. One study suggests that 10 years of job seniority can account for a 25 percent increase in the typical worker's wage.

Data show that women spend more time away from work. For all men, only 1.6 percent of all potential work-years were spend away from work. For women, this figure is 14.7 percent of all potential work-years. This has an impact on seniority, and in turn, on income. If this time away from work is a choice made by women workers, and not the result of discriminatory pay or hiring practices, then it is a nondiscriminatory factor that can account for the wage gap.

Other studies have shown that turnover is higher for women than for men. Fewer turnovers tend to increase seniority. Again, if the reasons that women leave jobs are not based upon discrimination in the workplace, this is another factor than can account for the wage gap.

Sources: Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Facts on Working Women, Earnings Difference Between Women and Men; Copley News Service, June 12, 1998

How do men's and women's salaries compare when you control for level of education?

Answer Overall, men make more than women at every education level.

Sources: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey; U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, 20 Facts on Working Women; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Monthly Labor Review Online, March 1998, Vol. 121, No. 3, Daniel E. Hecker, Earnings of College Graduates: women compared with men (Abstract)

Is the wage gap different at different ages?

AnswerYes. Although the wage gap has been gradually decreasing over time, younger women have generally experienced a smaller wage gap than older women. The gap grows for almost every working year, decreasing only when women reach their 60s.

Sources: U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Worth More Than We Earn: Fair Pay for Working Women; U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Equal Pay: A Thirty-Five Year Perspective

Do women's earnings equal men's when they enter nontraditional occupations?

Answer Generally not. A nontraditional participation occupation is defined as one in which women comprise 25 percent or fewer of the workers. Women's salaries in these nontraditional occupations are substantially higher, on average, than salaries in traditional jobs. Yet women still earn less than their male counterparts in these professions. (Women's educational gains have increased their participation in these fields, so that some professions -- lawyers and doctors, for example -- are no longer considered nontraditional.)

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Equal Pay: A Thirty-Five Year Perspective

Can women earn salaries equal to men's by choosing the same fields of study and occupations?

Answer No. A recent report studied men's and women's salaries for 130 different major fields. It compared them for college major, occupation, and age. The study found that even where characteristics of the men and women were similar, the wage gap narrowed but did not disappear.

Women earned 100 percent or more of men's salaries in 8.5 percent of the major fields, representing two percent of women's employment.

In about half the fields, accounting for 48 percent of women's employment, women earned at least 87 percent of men's salaries. In the remaining 51 major fields, or 39 percent of women's employment, women earned less than 87 percent of men's pay.

The fields that were the best for women in the 25 to 34 age group were accounting, chemistry, computer and information sciences, engineering, mathematics and pharmacy.

Sources: U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, Equal Pay: A Thirty-Five Year Perspective, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics, Monthly Labor Review Online, March 1998, Vol. 121, No. 3, Daniel E. Hecker Earnings of College Graduates: women compared with men
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