Pay disparities between men and women start earlier in their careers than frequently assumed and have significantly widened for young workers in the past year, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.

Paychecks for young female college graduates are about 79 percent as large as those of their  male peers, the think tank found — a serious drop from 84 percent last year.

The sudden change follows a more gradual shift. In 2000, women ages 21 to 24 with college degrees earned 92 percent of their male counterparts’ wages on average, which was unchanged from 1990.

Regardless of their education, young women typically earn less money than young men in the United States. Female high-school graduates, ages 21 to 24, now earn an average of 92 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts.

Allow EPI to chart it out:

Some have argued that the wage gap, at any stage of a woman’s life, starts with her choices. Women are more likely than men to scale back at work when they start a family, for instance. (Employers are also more likely to reward fathers and penalize mothers.) But EPI's data shows that the gender wage gap cracks open right after college graduation, well before decisions like maternity leave can affect women’s earnings.

The gender wage gap in the broader labor force has steadily declined since the 1980s.

Obama said he hopes there is a day when American children are "astonished" that there was a time "when women earned less than men for doing the same work." (Reuters)

“It is noteworthy that stark wage disparities between men and women occur even at this early part of their careers,” the researchers wrote, “when they have fairly comparable labor market experience.”

Young men with a college degree make an average hourly wage of $20.94 right after graduation, according to the EPI figures, compared with the average hourly wage of $16.58 for women. That’s a $9,000 annual difference.

Teresa Kroeger, who co-authored the paper, said rising wages for men at the top of the income distribution appear to be exacerbating the chasm. “We suspect this is following the overall trend of the economy,” she said.

Men tend to dominate the workforce in the highest-paid career fields, Kroeger said — technology and finance, for example. These fields have enjoyed more wage growth over the past year as pay in others has stagnated. That may explain part of the recently ballooning gap. 

The data do not, however, reveal the young workers' chosen jobs and fields. So, Kroeger said, she can’t say why, exactly, young men’s wages are growing as young women's shrink.

A recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by, which broke out jobs where at least 85 percent of the workers are men and at least 85 percent of the workers are women, may shed some light. 

The top three male-dominated occupations (software developer, computer-systems administrator and construction project manager) all offered higher average pay, they found, than the top three female-dominated occupations (elementary-school teacher, registered nurse and human-resources specialist). The average income for a 22-year-old man in this analysis was $40,800, compared with $31,090 for a 22-year-old woman.

Kevin Miller, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women, said choice is just one pay-determining factor.

“Men in, say, engineering and computing are getting the majority of those degrees,” he said, “but women also face gender norm barriers and harassment in those fields. It’s not always a choice free of constraints.”

While discrimination is difficult to prove, research offers insight into how today's women may encounter it.

In one infamous 2012 study, science faculty from research-intensive universities assessed fake résumés from male and female candidates for a laboratory manager position. Though the fictional students’ qualifications were identical, the faculty members routinely ranked the men as more qualified for the job.

A 2015 AAUW report of workers one year out of college found considerable pay differences between men and women in the same career fields.

Women who majored in business, for example, earned an average of $38,000, while men bagged just more than $45,000. In engineering, computer and information sciences fields, young female graduates earned between 77 and 88 percent of what their male colleagues made.

Across all fields, after controlling for major, occupation and grade-point average, the report found women still earned 7 percent less than men.

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