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Wage Gap Continues to Vex Women

The Disparity Is Growing Despite Gains in Education, Employment


The economic boom appears to have fattened wallets more than pocketbooks, exacerbating the persistent earnings disparity between men and women, according to two of the most recent government indicators.

Women's weekly earnings were closer to men's in 1993 than they were in 2000. When annual earnings are compared, women had their best year relative to men in 1997. By 1999, the typical woman took home $26,324, almost 28% less than the typical man's $36,476 annual income.

Economists are not sure what to make of the emerging trend, especially when American women, as a group, are better educated, take less time off after childbirth, and have access to and hold a broader array of jobs than ever before.

"It's doubly disconcerting that women are going to school and yet the pay gap is widening," said Heather Boushey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "That's the question: Why is that going on?"

Although they have no way to determine how much of the pay gap can be blamed on discrimination, economists are eyeing recent employment and social shifts that they can measure. Among the likely suspects are the concentration of men in high-paying technology jobs, the recent boom in male-dominated construction employment, and the introduction into the work force of about a million former welfare mothers.

"We definitely need more research to get the true story, but I think a lot of it is the [stagnation] of the minimum wage, and the fact that men's real wages are growing again," said Heidi I. Hartmann, an economist and director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

The gender pay gap is narrowest among hourly wage earners, closing to less than 17% in 2000. One reason for that is the minimum wage is shoring up the nation's lowest-paid workers.

Hartmann said that a bill introduced in Congress last week to raise the U.S. minimum wage, as California did in January with the state minimum wage, would help close the gender pay gap. California's minimum wage is higher than the federal.

"Women are two-thirds of minimum-wage workers so if you improve the minimum wage, you disproportionately bring women up," Hartmann said.

Some economists and public policy experts criticize the pay gap as an imprecise indicator that fails to account for gender differences in education, occupation, work experience, job performance and intangibles such as career commitment and productivity.

"That number doesn't give you that," said June E. O'Neill, an economics professor at Baruch College and director of the Congressional Budget Office from 1995 to 1999. The gender gap is a reflection of "whoever happens to be working that year.'

Others view the gender pay gap as a valuable trend line, a measure of the impact of public policies, market forces and personal choices on women's relative earnings. It is an important indicator, they say, of the ability of working women to support themselves and, especially with the rise in single-mother and two-income households, their families.

"I would certainly like to think that there are more opportunities now for women than there were a few years ago. Unfortunately, the statistics don't bear that out," said Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of labor and civil rights groups.

"We all have the sense that things are getting better rather than worse, based on the fact that the economy has been booming," Reed said. "My speculation is that the economic boom . . . did not raise all boats at the same rate."

Adding to the pay gap mystery are the gains made in women's earnings in preceding decades, particularly during the 1980s. Between 1979 and 1989, the ratio of women's median annual earnings to men's grew from 60.2% to 71.6%. A decade later, the ratio was 72.2%.

"The big pattern is that there was a marked, rapid, sustained progress in the 1980s, and the 1990s have been more uneven," said Francine D. Blau, a professor and director of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, who has written numerous books and articles on the pay gap.

Much of the earnings gains by women in the '80s were due to an increase in their job tenure, Blau said. Another factor was the decline of women as a portion of the clerical and service work force and their increase in professional and management ranks.

Women's gains, however, were only part of the 1980s pay picture, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. Almost 65% of the closing of the gender gap in the '80s was a result of the decline in men's wages as the era took its toll on male-dominated blue-collar jobs.

In the 1990s, the most dramatic departure from previous decades was the widening of the pay gap among 18- to 25-year-old workers, women and men born five years or more after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

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