Breaking bad: Gender pay gap narrows, but women shouldn’t be happy about it

(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Women working full-time now make 82.6 percent of what men make each week. That should be considered good news, since it’s better than the 79.7 percent that women earned relative to men a decade ago. So, why shouldn’t women be happy about this news?

It comes down to basic math.

The gender pay gap can narrow for a couple of basic reasons. Women could be catching up to men because women are moving into jobs that pay relatively high wages. But, they also could be catching up because men’s wages are falling.

The former story represents good news, but the latter story doesn’t.

Unfortunately, the latest data from the Labor Department show that one reason the gap between what women and men make each week is closing is because men’s earnings have fallen slightly while women’s earnings have been essentially flat over the past decade. (The data are collected as part of the Current Population Survey and are both seasonally-adjusted and adjusted for inflation and measure the median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers).

To put numbers to the news: The median inflation-adjusted weekly earnings for the 46.9 million women working full time was $710 in the first quarter of this year compared with the $859 median inflation-adjusted weekly earnings for the 58.7 million men working full time during that period. Ten years ago, women earned $703 a week, while men made $882 a week.

The chart also reflects the breaking bad news. Median earnings for both men and women were lower at the end of the first quarter of this year than at the end of the last quarter of last year. This downward tick is largely because the meager job growth for both men and women is happening in relatively low-paying jobs in sales and office occupations rather than in the relatively high-paying jobs in management and professional occupations.

So, while it’s good news that women are making more in 2014 than they did in 2004, the fact that men are earning less each week now than they did each week a decade and that the job growth is in relatively low-paying jobs is nothing to cheer about.

Even if we can be “happy” that the gender pay gap is narrower in 2014 than it was in 2004.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at 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.
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