The Gender Wage Gap Just Got Bigger

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Tuesday is International Women’s Day, which celebrates the progress women around the world are making toward equality. But here in the United States, some progress may be moving backward.

The gender wage gap actually widened last year, according to a new analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) based on weekly data for full-time workers. The ratio of median weekly earnings for women who work full time compared to men was 81.1 percent in 2015, a 1.4 percentage point decrease over the year before.

The good news is that both men and women saw weekly earnings rise at the median, or exact middle. But men got more of a raise than women: a 2.6 percent increase, versus women’s 0.9 percent boost. Women made $726 a week at the median last year, compared to $895 for men.

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It’s not yet clear whether this is a statistically significant decrease, explained IWPR’s Ariane Hegewisch. But the new data follows a familiar pattern that should be concerning. “Typically the wage gap widens when the economy does well, and it narrows when the economy doesn’t do well,” she noted.

So as the country finally emerges from the deep hole caused by the recession, old dynamics are likely to come back into play. “I do think it is positive to at least see an increase in real wages. As far as we can see there has been one for all groups of women,” she said. But “it’s just more for men than women.”

It’s not that there aren’t qualified women in the economy; to the contrary, women continue to gain education, which should mean there are as many or more qualified women than men. But as the economy bounces back, men typically get better paying jobs, in large part thanks to the persistence of occupational segregation that means men’s work is higher paid and women’s work is lower paid.

“Generally what we know about the economy is at last there have been some gains in manufacturing and construction, for example, which are better paid jobs for low-wage men and they mainly go to men,” she said. “Women are picking up some good jobs, professional jobs, but also a lot of low-wage jobs in the service sector…that are mainly taken by women.”

These factors explain a large part of the gender wage gap generally. According to a recent paper from two economists, differences between what industries and occupations men and women end up in account for just over half of the gap in earnings.

In short, women might want to brace for the wage gap to continue growing in at least the short term. “It’s unlikely that there was a big narrowing of the wage gap,” Hegewisch said. “Maybe it hasn’t widened, but it’s very unlikely that it has narrowed.”

Significant progress has been made in closing the wage gap since 1980, when, at the median, women made just 64.2 percent of what men did every week. But most of that happened in the 80s and 90s, when the weekly gender wage gap closed by 6 percentage points both decades. Over the past ten years, it’s only closed by 0.3 percentage points. This, too, has something to do with job segregation. “From the 2000s onwards, there has been no further integration of occupations,” Hegewisch said. “There has been much further education…but there has been no further narrowing of the wage gap.”

The weekly earnings gap is just one way to measure pay inequity. When women’s earnings for an entire year are matched up against men’s, the wage gap is wider: women make just 79 percent of what men make when both groups work full time. Progress here too has stalled, and there hasn’t been a significant reduction of the annual wage gap since 2007.

Occupational segregation isn’t the only factor that leads to women earning less than men. Race plays a role, as women of color have even larger pay gaps than white women. Experience is also part of it, given that women are much more likely than men to take breaks from work to care for family members.

But some of the gap can’t be explained by all of these variables put together, and it may very well be that gender discrimination is at work. Research has frequently found that both men and women hold biases against giving women more money and underrate women’s job performances.