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Doing the math on earnings inequality

A special report from the U.S. Census Bureau highlights dissimilarities between men’s and women’s earnings

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

Numerous theories and studies have tried to tease out why— four decades after equal pay laws were enacted— the gap between male and female earnings in the U.S. remains so intractable. Many analysts have concluded that gendered patterns of labor force participation account for women’s lower earnings— women, particularly women with children, are more likely than men to take time out of the paid workforce, more likely to work part-time, and may prefer jobs with greater flexibility over those with higher pay. Yet even studies controlling for these factors routinely find evidence of a significant sex-based earnings gap.

A May 2004 analysis of occupational and earnings data collected for the 2000 Census gets into the gruesome details of disparities between men’s and women’s earnings. By comparing the range of low, median and high level earnings for men and women in over 500 specific occupations, authors of the report found that with very few exceptions, men make more money than women in the same occupations at all points in the earnings spectrum— from 23 percent more at the lower range of earnings (10th percentile) to 54 percent more at the upper end of the pay scale (90th percentile). Overall, the Census study found the median earnings of women who worked year-round full-time in 1999 were $28,000, just 74 percent of comparable men’s median earnings ($38,000). Women aged 35 to 54 had even lower earnings compared to men in the same age group, with median earnings falling to only 71.4 percent of men’s.

The special report (Evidence From Census 2000 About Earnings by Detailed Occupation for Men and Women, by Daniel H. Weinberg for the U.S. Census Bureau) found that in both occupations with the highest median earnings for women and those in which women had the lowest median earnings, men in the same occupations earned more at all levels of earning distribution for every occupation except one (among the lowest-paid occupations, both male and female "Dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers" had median earnings of $15,000 a year). Overall, there were only a handful of occupations in which women’s median earnings were equal or nearly equal to those of men (in addition to "Dining room and cafeteria attendants," these occupations include "Dietitians and nutritionists," "Meeting and convention planners," " Postal service clerks," "Postal service mail sorters and processors," and five occupations falling into two occupational groups with very low percentages of female workers: " Construction and extraction occupations" and "Installation, maintenance and repair occupations").

When earnings distributions were analyzed to factor in the effects of age and educational attainment on women’s earnings, the study found that women age 35 to 54 with some college education had higher median earnings than other women in the same age group, but not by much (72.1 percent versus 71.4 percent). The starkest inequity occurred at the high end of the earning spectrum for women age 35 to 54 with a bachelor’s or advanced degree, who earned just 55 percent of comparable men’s earnings. Quoted in an Associated Press story covering the study’s release (by Genaro C. Armas, June 4, 2004), Institute for Women’s Policy Research president Heidi Hartmann remarks that “women have narrowed the disparity [between men’s and women’s earnings] over time in part because more have college degrees or better.” Yet the Census Bureau report found “education alone contributes little toward equality between men’s and women’s median earnings.”

By combining earnings data from the Census study with information published by the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, the MMO created a summary table showing low, median, high and average earnings for male and female workers in the twenty leading occupations for women in the U.S. (in 2002, roughly 40 percent of all full-time female workers were employed in these combined occupations). For women, median earnings in these occupations range from $15,000 to $42,000 per year; for men, median earnings in the same occupations range from $19,000 to $50,000 a year. The median earnings of women were at least 90 to 95 percent of men’s in just two of the leading occupations for women, "Registered nurses" and "Secondary school teachers."

At the highest level of earnings (90th percentile) in leading occupations for women, the spread of women’s earnings ranged from $21,000 to $64,000; women’s earnings at the 90th percentile were less than $45,000 in ten out of the twenty occupations. Men in the 90th percentile in the same occupations earned between $31,000 and $130,000, and earned less than $50,000 in only three occupations.

Four occupations identified as leading occupations for women are among occupations with the lowest median earnings for women— "Cashiers," "Cooks," "Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners," and "Waiters and Waitresses."

The special Census Bureau report also compares “earnings dispersion”— the distance in dollars from the lowest level of earnings to the highest level of earnings within a given occupation— for male and female workers. Earnings dispersions for female workers typically start somewhat lower and end considerably lower— overall and within occupations— compared to those of male workers. A higher ratio of earnings dispersion indicates a wider range between the bottom (10th percentile) and top earning brackets (90th percentile). For example, an earnings dispersion ratio of 5.00 indicates that workers in the 90th percentile earn five times as much as workers in the 10th percentile of earnings in a specified occupation. Overall, men age 35 to 54 were found to have an earning dispersion ratio of 4.90; the ratio for all women in the same age group was 4.20. When the study controlled for the presence of children under 18 in the home, it was found that women age 35 to 54 with no children had a narrower earnings spread (4.07) than women in the same age group with children (4.29). This doesn’t necessarily mean that mid-life women with children at home who work full-time year-round earn more than their childless counterparts; it simply means the spread of their earnings from lowest to highest within an occupation is typically broader than that of similar women with no children.

While mid-career men (age 35 to 54) with college or graduate degrees had one of the broadest earning dispersion ratios (5.24), women in the same age group with the same educational qualifications had a narrower ratio: 3.70. In other words, college educated, mid-life men employed in an occupation with earnings of $20,000 at the 10th percentile could anticipate earnings of $104, 800 if they entered the 90th percentile. For comparable women workers in the same occupation with the same level of earnings at the 10th percentile, the upper end of the earnings scale tops out at just $74,000 (although since women’s earnings at the 10th percentile tend to be lower than those of men in almost every occupation, women also earn proportionally less at the 90th percentile of the earnings spectrum).

In an effort to avoid stating what might seem obvious to the non-scientific observer (i.e., that such consistent patterns of higher earnings for men and lower earnings for women in nearly every occupation— and at all levels of earnings within occupations— suggests that women are paid less because women’s work is considered less valuable than men’s), researchers continue to scout around for logical explanations for the variation in male and female earnings other than outright sex discrimination. In addition to the argument that women compromise their potential for higher earnings by favoring family-friendly jobs or clocking out of paid work altogether for a number of months or years, there is also the conjecture that men may be more attracted to riskier employment situations or specialties within an occupation that yield higher earnings (although it also seems equally possible that employment situations and occupational specialties with generally higher earnings may be biased toward the inclusion of males).

The specialization theory could account for some of the inequalities in men’s and women’s earnings in occupations that require advanced education or training and extensive on-the-job experience, such as "Chief executives" (men’s median earnings: $95,000/women’s: $60,000), "Physicians and surgeons" (men’s median earnings: $140,000/women’s: $88,000) or "Lawyers" (men’s median earnings: $90,000/women’s: $66,000). But can it really explain why significant earnings differences persist in low-paid, low-skilled occupations like "Dishwashers" (men’s median earnings: $14,000/women’s: $12,000), "Cashiers" (men’s median earnings: $21,000/women’s: $15,000), "Counter attendants, food concession" (men’s median earnings: $16,000/women’s: $13,000) and " Retail salespersons" (men’s median earnings: $31,000/women’s: $20,000)? The Census Bureau analysis ultimately finds “there is a substantial gap in median earnings between men and women that is unexplained, even after controlling for work experience (to the extent it can be represented by age and the presence of children), education and occupation.”

I’m not a hard-core numbers person, but all this juicy data has me thinking. For example, has it never occurred to anyone that mothers in high-powered professional careers might be tempted to “opt out” because they aren’t being paid as well as male colleagues with the same amount of education and work experience? We’ve heard an awful lot about how mothers earn less simply because they have different “preferences” and “priorities” than fathers concerning the relative importance of work and family. A new study of the long-term earnings gap from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research questions the real nature of women's work-family “choices”:

“When women ‘choose’ to spend more time out of the labor market taking care of children than their husbands do, how much of their choice is constrained by lack of affordable, good quality alternative care, women’s lower pay or inferior working conditions on the job, their expectations that they won’t be promoted anyway, or social norms in their kinship network, religious groups, or community?”

Is it time put forward the wild notion that women earn less across the board because men are less likely to adjust their employment patterns to accommodate the necessary and normal responsibilities of life outside of paid work? Or perhaps that men earn more because— subconsciously or otherwise— employers still view them as primary or potential primary wage-earners, while women’s earnings may be considered supplemental to the male spouse’s wage?

There are undoubtedly exceptional male workers and unexceptional female workers in every occupation—needless to say, the reverse is also true—and whatever remuneration these workers receive should fairly reflect the quality of their work. But something smells very fishy when men almost always earn more—especially at the upper and lower ends of the scale—than comparable women who are doing the same kind of job.

And just so you know, in 1999 the median earnings of "Child care workers," "Teachers assistants" and "Pre-school and kindergarten teachers" were lower than those of "Service station" and "Parking lot" attendants. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like something is seriously out of whack with a society that pays workers more for taking care of cars than it does for teaching and taking care of kids.

On a final note, while I was running calculations comparing women’s median earnings to men’s for the MMO summary tables, a figure that popped up with surprising frequency was 66.6 percent. So maybe Satan is to blame for the wage gap. Given uncertainties about attributing women’s lower earnings to systemic gender bias, I suppose that makes about as much sense as anything else. 

mmo : June 2004

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the editor of The Mothers Movement Online and an unrepentant data junkie.

MMO summary tables comparing Census data on the distribution of men and women’s earnings for selected occupations (five pages in .pdf). Tables include data for the 20 leading occupations for women, 20 occupations with highest median earnings for women, 20 occupations with lowest median earnings for women, and miscellaneous occupations sorted by percentage of women workers.

US Census Bureau:
Evidence From Census 2000 About Earnings by Detailed Occupation for Men and Women (in .pdf), May 2004

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