Elusive equal pay

April 25, 2007

Anew study by the American Association of University Women shows a persistent inequality when it comes to salary earnings among college-educated men and women. Despite efforts to ensure that men and women holding the same or similar jobs earn roughly the same pay, researchers find a still-prevalent wage gap. The problem needs to be addressed on a number of fronts, including women choosing higher-paying jobs, employers making sure that women and men are given access to similar economic opportunities and continuing vigilance against lingering gender discrimination.

Over the past three decades, women increasingly have been going to college, and they now outnumber men on campus. In 1974, 38 percent of men ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college, compared with 33 percent of young women. But by 2003, about 51 percent of young women either attended or graduated from college, compared with 41 percent of young men. The fact that women outpaced men in enrollment and graduation, as well as outperformed them with slightly higher grade point averages, however, did not translate into equal pay.

The AAUW researchers found that one year after graduating from college, women working full-time earned just 80 percent of what their male counterparts earned. A decade after graduation, women earned only 69 percent of what men earned.

Getting rid of the gap will require collective and individual action. The study sensibly recommends that sex-segregated occupations such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics - the so-called STEM fields - be more aggressively marketed to young women. But it also encourages women to become tougher when it comes to negotiating salaries and terms of employment.

The AAUW study is rightly being used to bolster congressional efforts to increase women's pay. Legislation is being considered that would enhance federal training for employers to help them eliminate wage disparities, prevent employers from punishing employees who share salary information with co-workers and strengthen anti-sex discrimination laws that are on the books, such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

As the continuing wage gap was addressed in testimony and a rally on Capitol Hill yesterday, the AAUW study helps underscore the importance of combating the persistent bias that cheats women and their families because of women's diminished earning power.

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