Women advancing, but their pay isn't

Despite female progress, men still hold top posts in academia's sciences

February 06, 2005|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

WOMEN'S BRAINS work differently from those of men - different sizes, different electrical patterns, different test scores. That much we know is true.

But that fact, as interesting and complicating to our lives as it might be, appears to have nothing to do with why more women don't have top jobs in academic science.

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers suggested at a conference in Cambridge, Mass., last month that innate intellectual differences between women and men might be one reason why women are less active than men in areas such as math, physics and engineering.

He promptly had his own head handed to him by angry academic women, who produced an impressive array of research evidence that nurture, not nature, is behind a notable lack of achievement by women in some of these areas.

The research suggests that the absence of women as deans of engineering and heads of physics departments at most of America's best universities appears to be largely about the chilly male-dominated cultures at these institutions.

Beyond academics, the Summers debate has opened a window on a much larger argument over gender economics in America.

In 1970, women working full time earned 40 percent less than men on average. In 2003 - after decades of women breaking down barriers to achievement in virtually every area of economic activity - women still lag significantly, earning 24 percent less than men on average, Census data show.

And one important reason that gap has narrowed has nothing to do with equity. The average male income dipped during the recent recession because more men have been losing manufacturing jobs and accepting less-remunerative positions in the service sector.

Lots of seemingly reasonable explanations have been offered for the continuing income gap. Fewer women than men have college degrees. Women sometimes interrupt their careers to have babies. Women sometimes choose occupations or professional specialties that are less demanding or pay less.

But like late-winter snow, these explanations are beginning to melt away.

Women are now matching or outperforming men throughout higher education. Record numbers are training to be doctors and lawyers and earn MBAs.

In 1970, only 42 percent of college students were women, but by 2000 that share had grown to 56 percent. And women have made even larger gains at the graduate level. Some 58 percent of graduate students were women in 2000, up from 39 percent in 1970, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Women are more likely these days to focus on their careers earlier and have babies later, and growing numbers are not taking significant amounts of time off after childbirth but rather teaming with their husbands to combine parenting with work.

Anyone with a bachelor's degree - man or woman - earns significantly more than someone without one - an average of $65,000 a year compared with $33,000 for a high school graduate. So, over time, it is reasonable to expect that the average wages of women working full time will surpass those of men.

But to make that leap, these newly educated women will have to overcome barriers that are keeping the pay of today's women - educated or not - well below that of their male counterparts.

Consider recent Census Bureau data on jobs that do not require college degrees. They show that full-time male teacher assistants earned a median of $20,000 a year in 1999 while their female counterparts earned just $15,000. The median for male hotel desk clerks was also $20,000 while women earned $16,000 in the same job.

Gap widens at top

More ominously, a recent study by the Economics and Statistics Administration shows that in higher-paying occupations the gap between men and women is wider. For example, the median earnings of female physician's assistants, securities brokers and financial advisers in 1999 were, on average, 40 percent lower than men in the same jobs.

The median income of a male full-time dentist was $110,000 in 1999, while the median for females was just $68,000.

"There is a substantial gap in median earnings between men and women that is unexplained, even after controlling for work experience, ... education and occupation," the study's authors conclude.

That unexplained difference brings us back to Summers' speculations and the controversy they stirred.

To successful women in academia, success - and the economic rewards that come with it - is not out of reach for many because of a gender flaw. They say, instead, that women are scarce in top jobs because the male-dominated upper reaches of sciences and engineering aren't particularly friendly places for smart, accomplished women.

Men and women are working hard to overcome the science chill and are making progress - notably in this area with an ambitious effort by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to recruit promising female scientists.

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