By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 12:01 AM
The number of women with six-figure incomes is rising at a much faster pace than it is for men.
Nationwide, about one in 18 women working full time earned $100,000 or more in 2009, a jump of 14 percent over two years, according to new census figures. In contrast, one in seven men made that much, up just 4 percent.
The legions of higher-income women have grown even faster in the Washington region, further burnishing its reputation as a land of opportunity for ambitious professional women.
In the metropolitan region, one in six women earned more than $100,000 last year, the second highest ratio in the nation behind No. 1 San Jose. But Washington women had the highest median pay among all full-time working women, almost $54,000 compared with the national median of nearly $37,000.
The swelling ranks of well-paid women workers are largely attributable to almost three decades of growth in the number of women with the academic credentials to land good jobs. Women now outnumber men at almost every level of higher education, with three women attending college and graduate school for every two men. They get more master's degrees and more PhDs. Most law school students are women, as are almost half of all medical students.
"We're finally bearing the fruit from women getting so much higher education in the United States," said Robert Drago, director of research at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "It's the result of women entering into professional managerial careers."
But women's advocates and groups representing professional women cautioned that a wage gap between the sexes remains stubbornly persistent and women are sparsely represented at the upper echelons of business. Just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
"I'm happy to know there's another dollar in the pocket of a woman," said Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst, a group that works to improve business opportunities for women. "It's expected, as women get more education, that they'll earn more. But women have been getting these degrees for a long time. And they're still hitting a glass ceiling."
The gains that women continue to make in the workplace have come amid the worst recession in decades - a downturn that has been particularly harsh for men. Median pay and hours worked fell twice as much for men as for women. The share of workers earning $50,000 and up was flat for men but rose by 5 percent for women.
Those figures represent an economy in which manufacturing and construction, with more male workers than women, is declining while jobs requiring the higher education at which women excel have increased.
"Before this recession, unemployment rates for men and women used to go together," said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist who heads the Center for Employment Policy at the Hudson Institute. "Over the past two years, they've diverged."
The full-time workforce remains predominantly male, with 56 million men and 42 million women. Only a relatively small segment of either sex has passed the $100,000 benchmark - about 2.4 million working women and 7.9 million men earn that much.
In the Washington area, high-earning women still lag behind men, but they are catching up quickly. Last year, 155,000 women earned more than $100,000, up 19 percent over 2007. The number of men whose incomes fall in that bracket rose only 3 percent, to 350,000.
Some areas have an outsize number of well-compensated women. In Fairfax County, for example, one out of every four women make more than $100,000. It's just under one in five in the District and in Montgomery, Loudoun and Howard counties.
Some analysts believe that the gap between men and women who are earning more than $100,000 will narrow further, at least for one group.
A report earlier this year from a consumer marketing firm found that unmarried women in their 20s who are childless and work in cities have caught up with or are ahead of young men living in all but a handful of the nation's largest metropolitan regions.
The discrepancy between young women and men in comparable situations is not so noticeable in Washington, though it is otherwise the epitome of a city that attracts young women graduates, said James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, which issued the report analyzing three years of census data.
"D.C. is a talent magnet for young women," he said. "It's a city that runs more on cognitive skills than it does on physical strength."
Women make up more than four out of 10 of the federal government's civilian employees who rank high enough to earn $100,000 or more, according to Federally Employed Women, which advocates policies on their behalf.
The Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia has about 700 dues-paying members. Lawyers are drawn to the city because it offers so many different kinds of jobs, said the group's president, Holly Loiseau.
"There are government positions, nonprofits, law firms that are small, medium and large, and positions in-house," she said. "It's been a place of good opportunity for lawyers in general, and for women, too."
Lorie Masters felt that way 30 years ago when she moved to Washington fresh out of law school.
"I came here because I didn't want to fight as many battles as I thought I'd fight in smaller cities," said Masters, a partner at Jenner & Block who represents policyholders on insurance coverage issues.
"It seemed there were more women coming to D.C. at the time who were like me, who were entering professions typically dominated by men. In cities near the small town where I grew up, there were the typical venues where men went to do business not open to women, and I didn't want to be in an environment where it seemed things were obviously closed off to me."
Masters said that today, Washington is a "wonderful" city in which to be a professional women, but she adds that progress still needs to be made on pay and promotions. "While I think we've won the hiring battles," she said, "I do think the issues women face are harder to deal with, because they're more subtle."
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.