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Gender pay gap narrows at slower pace

For many, the gap between women’s and men’s wages is narrowing far too slowly. Others wonder why it is even an issue. Few if any issues in economics are more contentious, more misunderstood and more studied.

The National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of more than 100 social activist organizations from the AFL-CIO to YWCA, believes the pay gap is closing much too slowly. To raise public awareness of the gender wage gap, the NCPE has designated next Tuesday, April 10 as Equal Pay Day. According to the NCPE, “this date symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.” Simply put, on average, a woman needs to work about 15 months to earn the same amount of money a man earns in 12 months.

In contrast, a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2009 concluded that “differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”

On average, the gender wage gap narrowed by well more than half a percent per year from 1980 to 2005; women’s wages as a percentage of men’s rose from 64 percent to 81 percent. Over the last 12 years, though, the gap has barely budged. (See chart.)

The U.S. is about equally divided on issues related to equal rights for men and women. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found, “Half of Americans say the country hasn’t gone far enough [in granting women equal rights with men], 39 percent say efforts on this front have been about right, and 10 percent say the country has gone too far.”

Attitudes differ from experience

Undoubtedly, women’s and men’s attitudes are influenced by high-profile cases of gender wage discrimination, such as star actress Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games” movie fame, who discussed pay inequality in Hollywood during a recent episode of “60 Minutes.” Headline-grabbing comments about pay inequality were also made at the most recent Golden Globe Awards and Academy Awards ceremonies.

Interestingly, a Pew Research Center survey shows both men’s and women’s attitudes about the gender wage gap are in sharp contrast with their workplace experiences. When asked, “If a man and a woman are doing the same work, do you think the man generally earns more,” 62 percent of women said men earn more. In contrast, when asked, “What about where you work? Do you think women are paid more, less or about the same as men for doing the same job,” only 14 percent of women said women are paid less. Men’s beliefs were similarly skewed but to a smaller degree: 47 percent of men said men earn more than women for doing the same work, but only 9 percent said that is the case at their workplaces.

Geography of gender pay gap

The gender wage gap varies considerably from place to place. According to the American Association of University Women, which promotes “equity and education for women and girls,” the gender pay gap is widest in Louisiana and Utah, where women’s earnings are only 70 percent of men’s, and narrowest in New York state. (See table.) Locally, the pay gap in both Essex and Franklin counties, at 81 percent, is slightly narrower than in the U.S. (See table.)

Where do we go from here?

Although women have made inroads into several industries and occupations that were once dominated by men, the gender wage gap persists and has shown little change over the last decade. According to research by Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin, “the [remaining pay] gap exists because hours of work in many occupations are worth more when given at particular moments and when the hours are more continuous.” Simply put, those who earn the big bucks rarely interrupt their daily work schedules or take leaves of absence to accommodate personal and family matters.

Still, Goldin notes some of the fastest growing occupations in industries such as health care and information technologies are providing more flexible work schedules, which tend to reduce the gender wage gap. She notes that “this matter is not just a woman’s issue. Many workers will benefit from greater flexibility, although those who do not value the [flexibility] will likely lose from its lower price.”

Going forward, the narrowing of the gender pay gap is likely to continue at a snail’s pace, as it has over the last decade. Further narrowing is likely to require deep-seated cultural changes in gender roles on the homefront as well as in how, when and where work is done for our workplaces.

What are your thoughts on, and experiences related to, this contentious issue? Email comments at economicsandyou2@gmail.com.

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