This week, the Census Bureau reported some bright news: Middle-class incomes rose last year to the highest level ever recorded, a long-awaited sign of healing from the Great Recession.
Along gender lines, the numbers revealed a more complicated story. Women are closing the pay gap with men — the national disparity shrank by the largest amount since 2007.
But it’s not just because women are landing more raises. Men, it seems, are hitting a wall.
Since the downturn, female workers — who still make less money as a group than their male counterparts — have seen more income growth. However, that is true only for white and Asian women. Wages for Hispanic women flatlined, and pay for African American women declined. Men, meanwhile, have dealt with more wage stagnation.
Last year, the female-to-male earnings ratio climbed to 80.5 percent, the highest ever, financier Steven Rattner pointed out on his website. That’s up from 80 percent in 2014 and 2015:
The typical woman earned $41,554 in 2016, while the average man took home $51,640. Neither sex experienced a statistically significant income jump from the previous year.
But between 2014 and 2015, median pay for men increased by a dismal 1.5 percent while women saw a 2.7 percent increase, according to census data.
Last year’s family numbers, meanwhile, show a similar trend.
Married-couple households, per usual, had the highest median income ($87,057), a 1.6 percent increase from 2015, followed by single male breadwinners ($58,051), whose wages have held steady. Over the past two years, though, women-led households, which include single mothers, recorded a pay jump of 7.2 percent.
So, is something holding men back, specifically?
David Wessel, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, argued in a blog post that, adjusting for inflation, men haven’t gotten a collective raise since 1973. Women, though, have seen a 30 percent pay increase over the past four decades.
Part of that is easy to explain: Women have surged into the workforce since the 1970s as attitudes have changed and career advancement for mothers has become more socially acceptable.
And economists know that some male-dominated fields, such as manufacturing and mining, have faced steep declines over the past two decades, taking away some of the best-paying opportunities for workers without college degrees.
“Jobs in health care are growing, and those are traditionally held by women,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at the job website Indeed. “The jobs expected to shrink most are in agriculture and manufacturing, which are traditionally held by men.”
Union power, which is associated with better pay across blue-collar workforces, has also dramatically waned.
Women, meanwhile, continue to outpace men in college enrollment, suggesting they could be chasing more lucrative jobs in higher numbers.
“Women are highly invested in their education — more so than men — and this should lead to a relative increase in their earnings,” Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, wrote this week in an analysis. “The gains overall show important progress, but we must pay close attention to whether these gains are broadly felt, or only felt by certain groups.”
Hegewisch noted that median earnings for black women fell by 1.3 percent between 2015 and 2016, while pay for white women increased by 4.9 percent. Hispanic women’s wages stayed unchanged.
None of these groups make as much as white men.
The gender wage gap has long inspired debate. Some argue it’s a myth. Others say the figure is misleading. Economists at Cornell University recently crunched pay data and found that most of the pay differences between men and women can be attributed to career choices, while at least 30 percent is “unknown” — leaving room for discrimination.
Pay-equality advocates argue that employers may assume that women with children aren’t as dedicated to their jobs, leading to missed promotions and raises. Research repeatedly finds that such bias exists, though it’s hard to pinpoint how much it actually reduces pay for female workers.