A closer look at the pay gap, in charts

September 30, 2012

The historian Stephanie Coontz argues in Sunday's New York Times that while the male-female pay gap has shrunk, this reflects a "convergence in economic fortunes, not female ascendance."

If anything, that's too optimistic. Over the past decade, there are signs the pay gap has grown entrenched, even as male wages have fallen. Convergence won't happen for another few decades, at least.

In 1947, women made up 31.5 percent of the work force. By 1979, that number had shot up to 50.6 percent, and it's stayed around 50 to 51 percent ever since. Since then, women of all races have seen their incomes rise (with those for white and black women nearly doubling) while white and Hispanic men's incomes fell, and black men's incomes barely rose. The Census only keeps data for Asian men and women from 1988 onwards, but it's the same story there: very small increases for men, big ones for women.

What's more disturbing is that if you zoom in on that graph and only focus on 2000-2010, all groups are stagnating.

Except for Asian women, no one went anywhere over the last decade, and even Asian women only saw median incomes rise from $21,975 to $23,612—a 7 percent increase, but not nearly enough to catch up to Asian men. In fact, if the pay gap keeps shrinking at the rate it has over the past decade, it'll take 47 years to close for white people, 19 to close for black people, 26 to close for Hispanic people and 38 to close for Asian people.

And if it closes, it won't be due to education. Men have always gotten a higher wage bump by going to college than women have, but that advantage shows few signs of shrinking, and actually grew for some of the last decade.

The wage gap isn't just due to women working fewer hours due to childcare burdens (though the unequal distribution of that burden is an issue of its own). If you look only at full-time workers, you see the same story. Women are still far behind men and not on pace to catch up anytime soon.

The same thing holds true for hourly earnings.

The wage gap is shrinking, but it's still there. White men make $2.09 more per hour than white women, black men make $0.96 more than black women, Hispanic men make $1.62 more than Hispanic women and Asian men make $1.70 more than Asian women.

Obviously, women are doing a lot better in the workforce than they were a half century ago. The meteoric rise in female labor force participation is astonishing and the pay gap is actually shrinking faster than it was in the 1970s; if it were shrinking at the same rate as it did from 1972-1982, the pay gap among whites wouldn't close for another 72 years. But men's economic privilege has been dented rather than eroded.

The key insight of books like Hanna Rosin's "The End of Men" is that the trend is toward stagnation and declining wages among men as women's economic fortunes continue to rise. That's totally true, and it's important. But it's also important not to interpret it as saying that men are somehow worse off than women as of 2012. They are, as always, far better off.

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Ezra Klein · September 30, 2012