Male-female wage gap isn't easily explained

Staying Ahead

June 07, 1999|By Jane Bryant Quinn

WHEN A married woman holds a paying job, how does that change her status in the family? Does the answer hinge on whether her earnings are higher or lower than her husband's?

These questions arise from research into the famous "wage gap" between women and men.

Women with the same education, experience, occupation and union status as men, and working in the same industry, earn 88 percent of the male wage, says economist Francine Blau of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

What accounts for the remaining gap? Some of it comes from lingering discrimination. But some of it arises from decisions the woman makes, not always voluntarily.

Researchers are testing some interesting ideas about marital money dynamics.

For example, what is the status of the wife's career within the family? Status is usually (but not always) determined by earning power. One career is often primary while the other is secondary.

If the wife's career is secondary, she probably won't be able to move to another city to take a better job. The husband's work comes first.

If the husband gets a better offer, however, the family might indeed move -- taking the wife away from the job she has.

In either case, the wife may agree with the decision. But she will earn less than if she had been free to follow her opportunities. That could be piece of the wage gap, right there.

Interestingly, a man with the primary job may be able to earn substantially more without even looking for a job in another town. His employer may make sure he's well-paid, simply because he's in a position to move, says economist Anne Winkler, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

What if the wife has the primary career? For 1993, when Winkler analyzed these numbers, about 21 percent of women earned more per year than their husbands.

Many of these wives earned only a little bit more, so they may not exercise much, if any, paycheck power. Only 10 percent of women earned at least 50 percent more than their husbands did.

A 1998 study of two-career business couples, by the New York City research group, Catalyst, found that 6 percent of women and 9 percent of men consider the wife's career primary. So women have to earn substantially more before their career takes precedence.

Even a woman capable of earning far more than her husband might refuse a job in another town, because she thinks her husband should be the key provider. So the wage gap could also be influenced by ideology.

About half the dual-earners said neither career was primary. But there's probably less equality than that suggests.

An out-of-town job offer would show where more of the power lies.

Another interesting question is how salaries affect housework. Husbands who view their wives as co-providers seem more willing to share domestic duties than men who think of themselves as the primary provider.

When she brings home more bacon, he makes more beds.

One last workplace fact: Working women with children tend to earn less than working women without children, even among women with the same education and work experience, says economist Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University in New York City. The average "mothers' discount" appears to be about 10 percent. Do mothers deliberately choose less demanding work? Do employers offer them less, on the assumption that they can't travel? Are they forced into taking less, due to insufficient maternity leave or child care? All these questions probably can be answered yes.

Another frontier in male-female relations is only beginning to be explored: the retired husband and the working wife.

Often, women marry older men. In the 1970s, women aged 55 to 64 who held down jobs generally retired when their husbands did, says Olivia Mitchell, a professor at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. No more.

Among women whose husbands are retired today, more than half work full-time, says economist Marjorie Honig, a professor at Hunter College in New York City.

Maybe they're working because their husbands are ill or were forced into retiring early. The couple might need the money, or need her employee health insurance.

But maybe these wives are working for themselves -- to qualify for a better pension, get a higher Social Security benefit or simply because they love their jobs.

On the housework front, I suspect that a lot of retired husbands, home alone, are doing the laundry and making dinner. Hear, hear!

Washington Post Writers Group

Pub Date: 6/07/99

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