Life at Work

Her Pay Gap Begins Right After Graduation

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

For years, women have outnumbered men on college campuses. Overall, they get better grades than men. And yet, just months after they toss their mortarboards into the air at college graduation, men start to pull ahead of women in pay.

Though the pay gap between men and women is well documented, it is startling to discover that it begins so soon. According to a new study by the American Association of University Women, women already earn 20 percent less than men at the same level and in the same field one year after college graduation. Right at the beginning, before taking time off for childbirth or child-rearing, women find themselves behind.

Of course, it only gets worse. Today, women earn about 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to census data, a figure that has remained steady for about a decade. The gap is deeply entrenched. The AAUW started studying the disparity in 1913, documenting different pay for men and women among federal government workers.

The latest study is unusual because it devotes attention to the first year out of school. "We are looking at a younger group of people who have many similarities," said Catherine Hill, director of research for the AAUW. "When they are just coming out of college, we expect to see fewer differences."

The gap, starting early, only widens as time goes on, according to the AAUW report "Behind the Pay Gap," released Monday. Ten years after graduation, women fall further behind, earning 69 percent of what men earn. A 12 percent gap appeared even when the AAUW Educational Foundation, which did the research, controlled for hours, occupation, parenthood and other factors known to directly affect earnings.

The remainder of the gap is unexplained by any other control factors. That may mean, Hill said, that discrimination is the root cause.

What to do?

One word: Negotiate.

While discrimination accounts for some of the discrepancy, said Linda Babcock, James M. Walton professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, women also suffer because they have not been taught to ask for more. Babcock, co-author of "Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide," argues that women don't negotiate enough, or many times, at all. She is not blaming women for creating their own wage gap, she said, but rather, society, for raising "little girls to accept the status quo."

Babcock encountered such an example while watching one of her daughter's favorite television shows, "Dragon Tales," an animated PBS series where a human brother and sister visit friends in Dragon Land. In one episode, the sister wants to make friends with a group of dragon scouts. Instead of just asking, Babcock said, the girl used indirect ways to fit in. She eventually succeeded by urging the scouts to join in teamwork.

For Babcock, the show reflected reality: Women are brought up to avoid asking for anything directly.

And so what can women do?

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