What Those Mocking Miss Utah Miss About The Gender Wage Gap


Sunday evening was the annual Miss USA beauty pageant, where Erin Brady, Miss Connecticut, took the crown. But what everyone seems to be talking about the morning after is not Brady but an answer Miss Utah gave during the pageant. A judge asked Marissa Powell, “A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?”

Her answer was admittedly rambling:

I think we can relate this back to education and how we are continuing to try to strive to (pause) figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem and I think, especially the men, are um, seen as the leaders of this and so we need to try and figure out how to create education better so we can solve this problem.

But why we expect women competing in a beauty pageant to all be experts in economics too is unclear. And those mocking Miss Utah may be surprised to hear that there were glimmers of truth in her answer: men’s wages and education are much discussed factors in the gender wage gap.

In married couples where women make more, men’s declining wages may be at least in part to blame. Men’s wages have been on a relatively steady decline since the late 1970s except for the strong labor market of the late 1990s. This trend can in fact account for a quarter of the narrowing gender wage gap over that time. “Men are the leaders of this” is almost accurate.

Talking about education in this context is not far-fetched. Some in fact look to education to solve this problem, as Powell haltingly indicated, as men are completing fewer higher degrees than women. But more education isn’t the answer. For men with a high school degree, real wages have fallen by more than 14 percent since the 1970s. Yet wages have remained depressed across the board, even for those with a college degree.

Education did help narrow the gender wage gap from the 1970s to the 2000s. Yet women’s wages have recently started dropping even as they gain even more higher education than men. And the wage gap is stubbornly persistent despite how much education women take on. The gap appears the moment men and women graduate, with young female graduates earning 82 percent of what their male counterparts earn. It follows them at every level of education as men with the same degree earn more.

The question was also poorly framed. The Pew report that the judge referred to actually shows that while 40 percent of families are relying on women’s wages, that demographic is really split into two groups: women who make more than their husbands and single mothers. In fact, single moms account for two-thirds of women who are the main income support for their families. Single mothers don’t just earn less than men. They earn a lot less than married couples: households headed by single mothers earn less than half of those with a married couple. Both the wage gap and the way U.S. policy fails to adequately support single parents are to blame.

In general, though, the model in which a husband makes more than his wife is still going strong: three-quarters of married couples follow this dynamic.

If the U.S. wants to close the gender wage gap, as the Miss USA judge seemed to be trying to discuss, it will have to confront many causes, one of the strongest of which may be the penalty working mothers face, particularly worrisome to breadwinning women. While men and women see similar wage growth through age 30, women’s slows right at the age when they typically begin having children and all but halts by age 39. Mothers earn 5 percent less per hour per child than childless women. Paid family leave could help change this equation, as it helps boost wages for mothers. Helping women to pay for childcare could also go a long way as it helps them stay in jobs and experience higher pay.

Other policy changes could help close the gap. Ending salary secrecy would make it easier for women to root out and address discrimination. Raising the minimum wage would give that female-dominated workforce a big lift.

Should Miss Utah have given a full overview of the causes and potential policy solutions to the gender wage gap? That seems a lot to ask of someone on the spot.