As thousands of high school graduates head off to college in the next few weeks, they’ll see a lot more women than men on campus — specifically, they’ll see three female students for every two male students they spot. These scenes are dramatically different from the ones their grandparents would have seen in the 1960′s when the percentages were reversed.
The surge in women’s college enrollment appears in their graduation figures.While only about 30 percent of women (and men) older than 25 have a college degree, in recent years, women have earned about 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Mark J. Perry, an economics professor at the University of Michigan and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, estimates that there are now about 4.35 million more women with college degrees in the United States than men.
That’s some progress.
Yet, progress in college degrees received (women also earn a larger share of master’s and doctor’s degrees than men do) has not turned into progress in paychecks received.
In 2011, women working full-time earned about 77 cents for each dollar that a man earned, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.The gap has narrowed over time, which is good news. But, as President Obama said on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Equal Pay Act making it illegal to discriminate in pay on the basis of sex, “does anybody here think that’s good enough?”
I sure don’t.
So, after all these years, why does the pay gap still exist? Is it because women choose to become social workers rather than rocket scientists, as some have noted? Or is it because they have decided to stay home with the kids and stop working or to work part time, as others have noted?
On the first point, rocket scientists certainly do make more than teachers. The median wage for an aerospace engineer in 2012 was $103,720, almost double the $53,400 a typical elementary school teacher could expect to make that year. It’s also true that only about 14 percent of architects and engineers are women, while more than 80 percent of elementary and middle school teachers are women. Over all occupations, women’s wages would be lower than men’s wages due to differences in occupational choices.
On the second point, fathers are more likely to work full-time than mothers. Nearly 40 percent of mothers worked part-time or not at all compared with 3 percent of fathers, according to a study by the American Association of University Women. Women who leave the labor force don’t gain much work experience so that when they return to work, they’re likely to make less than another person, male or female, with the same qualifications who has an unbroken career record.
Again, the data support this assertion. Judith Warner recently wrote for the New York Times Magazine about the cost to mothers when they leave their careers to spend more time with their families. Warner found that the women she interviewed who had returned to the work force a decade after leaving their jobs to take care of their kids were generally in lower paying, less prestigious jobs than the ones they left.
A separate study found that women who returned to work after an extended time off were paid 16 percent less than before they left the work force, while another study Warner cites found that only one-quarter of women who returned to the work force took a traditional hard-driving job, such as banking, compared with the two-thirds of women who were employed in such jobs before taking time off.
One final factor helps explain the pay gap: kids. In a paper published in the late 1990s, Columbia University professor of social work and public affairs Jane Waldfogel showed that having children has a negative impact on a woman’s wages, while it has no or even a positive effect on a man’s wages. The fact that the pay gap between women without children and women with children is larger than the pay gap between men and women further highlights the negative impact of kids on earnings. Waldfogel noted that it’s as true in 1998 as Victor Fuchs reported a decade earlier, that “the greatest barrier to economic equality is children.”
The research shows that having kids is bad for your paycheck. What the research doesn’t seem to show, however, is that many moms may actually not care.
Joann Weiner teaches economics at The George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.