Future progress seems less certain

It seems logical that the wage gap between men and women would narrow as women flocked into traditionally male jobs. And that, in fact, has been the trend since the 1970s. Recently, however, the Labor Dept. reported that women's median weekly wages, which had risen from 62% of men's wages in 1979 to 77% in 1992, have since slipped back to 75%. Does this mean that progress in reducing the differential has finally run out of steam?

Probably not. For one thing, another Labor Dept. earnings yardstick, annual wages of full-time, year-round female workers, actually jumped from 71.4% of male wages in 1995 to 73.8% in 1996. (The gender gap is wider for annual wages than weekly wages because it includes bonuses and overtime, which accrue more heavily to male workers.) Many experts believe that the influx of former welfare recipients into low-wage jobs has lowered the weekly ratio in recent years.

Indeed, the goal of equal pay for women implies some male-female wage differential because of different social patterns and work experience. Women tend to interrupt their careers to have children, for example, and they bear the brunt of home responsibilities. For many, the critical issue is whether those women possessing the same skills, education, and experience as their male counterparts are receiving comparable pay for comparable work. And here the record appears positive.

In 1984, for example, the hourly wages of female full-time workers were only 67% of male wages. But after adjusting the ratio for differences in women's education, experience, and occupations, economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn of Cornell University report that the ratio was actually 82%. Moreover, by 1988, the researchers calculate that the adjusted ratio had risen to 88%--which suggests that discrimination in similar jobs was holding women's wages down by no more than 12%.

Such results suggest that future progress in reducing the gender pay gap will reflect the offsetting influences of two contradictory trends: the growing ranks of female college graduates and the increased labor force participation of poorly educated women at the bottom of the income scale. And, of course, the pace at which women at all educational levels continue to move into traditionally male-dominated occupations.



Updated Oct. 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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