Wage gap between women and men is widening again Experts' opinions mixed on whether this shows workplace status retreat


After nearly two decades in which the wage gap between men and women was steadily narrowing, it is widening again, piquing confusion and concern among economists and women's groups.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings of full-time working women are just under 75 percent of the men's median, down from 77 percent four years ago.

"It's a puzzlement," said Francine Blau, a labor economist at Cornell University. "In my head, at this point, it doesn't mean we're actually going backward. It's more a slowdown, a plateau, a consolidation after a period of rapid social change. The concern is what's happened to that robust upward trend we had for so many years, and what's going to happen in the future."

From 1979 to 1993, women's median earnings rose from 62 percent of men's to 77 percent. And in the early 1990s, the narrowing gap was widely trumpeted as evidence of women's greater opportunities, education and work experience -- trends that were predicted to continue indefinitely, edging women ever closer to pay equity.

"The narrowing wage gap got a huge amount of attention five years ago," said Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University. "But right now, we're a little quiet. Questions of gender and economics are going to be with us forever, and it's all connected to political and social change. The social movements that led to women's advances came in with great force. It was an enormous tide. Now we're coming into a new equilibrium. I see this as a household issue, and the new equilibrium is that all those strollers are still being pushed by women."

While some labor economists suggest that the gender gap may have something to do with welfare reform unleashing unskilled women on the job market, most warn that it is far too soon to say with any certainty just what, if anything, the earnings data portend.

"There's definitely something real going on, and it's worth worrying about, but we don't have a good explanation," said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington research organization. "I've been wanting to point out to the world that it was happening, but I didn't know why, and I wanted to have some causal information before writing about it."

Most experts in the field caution against any conclusion that the earnings numbers are evidence of growing discrimination against women: They say it is more likely that the numbers reflect changes in the makeup of the work force, overall economic trends, or statistical flukes, than any real reversal of women's workplace status.

They point out that while one measure of wages -- median usual weekly earnings of full-time workers -- shows a steadily widening gap between men and women since 1993, another measure available only through 1995 -- annual full-time wages of year-round workers -- fluctuates slightly, showing no steady trend. The gap between men and women's annual earnings is larger than on the weekly earnings in part because the annual measure more fully reflects bonuses and occasional overtime, areas in which men tend to do better than women.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics changed its questionnaire in 1994, so that the later earnings data are not strictly comparable with the earlier years, but that would not account for any continuing drop.

Generally, the youngest women workers have come closest to men's pay levels, with those ages 16 to 24 earning more than 90 percent of men's wages, those in their mid-careers earning about 75 percent, and those over 55 earning about 65 percent as much as the men their age.

"Looking at women over their life cycle, you see that as they get those first jobs, they look pretty equal to men, then when they have their first baby, they start looking less equal to men," said Goldin.

While that overall picture remains unchanged, the youngest and oldest women lost ground in the last few years, while women ages 25 to 54 continued to earn about 75 percent of what men their age earned.

Heidi Hartmann, director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, is troubled by the widening wage gap because she said it indicates a concentration of women at the low end of the pay scale.

"There's a growing inequality in the labor market between people at the high end and people at the low end," she said. "Women are losing out because more of them are moving into the losing category of lower skilled workers than into the winning categories of highly skilled workers."

But June O'Neill, head of the Congressional Budget Office said, "Not-married women with children have had an enormous increase in employment, which coincides with the dropping welfare caseloads. These are the least skilled people entering the work force, and that would have a downward pull on median wages."

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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