Today is Equal Pay Day, a reminder that women and men are not always compensated at the same rate. While the widely reported statistic that women, on average, earn 77 cents to every man’s dollar has been is a great indicator that women are put in situations every day that for a variety of reasons mean they earn less, it has been criticized for not measuring individuals of similar characteristics, such as age, occupation, education, or experience. To try to get a better understanding of the gender wage gap among specific age groups, and given that many high school and college seniors are on the brink of graduating and entering the labor force, I thought it would be interesting look at the gender wage gap by age and education, to see how women and men fare as they enter today’s unsteady labor market.
The figures below show the entry-level wages of young college and high school graduates, as they appear in a presentation my colleague, Elise Gould, gave for a recent Senate Briefing on the Equal Rights Amendment (check it out! It’s a really good overview of the gender wage gap at various points in the wage distribution, and documents the gender wage gap by age and education). Both figures show the progress recent high school and college educated young women have made in closing the gender wage gap. In 1979, women with a high school degree made 74 cents to their male counterpart’s dollar, and women with a college degree made 79 cents. By 2013, the gap has narrowed for both groups: both high school and college educated entry-level working women make 84 cents to a man’s dollar.
To close the gender wage gap, women need to see real wage growth faster than their male counterparts. The best type of narrowing occurs when both women and men see real annual wage growth. It is possible for the gender wage gap to close because women see real wage increases, while men’s wages stagnate, but this isn’t the good kind of narrowing.
On the whole, college educated women have experienced the good closing of the gender wage gap. Between 1979 and 2013, both young college educated men and women wages saw real wage growth, but women’s wages grew slightly faster than their male counterparts (although neither groups experienced wage growth throughout the 2000s).
Conversely, the narrowing of the wage gap for high school graduate men and women occurred for all the wrong reasons. Both men and women saw real wage declines over the 1979-2013 period; high school men make 27.5 percent less in 2013 than they did in 1979, and high school women make 16.6 percent less. Because high school educated men fared much worse than their female counterparts, the gender wage gap narrowed.
We should be defining success in closing the gender wage gap by women catching up to men while both men and women share in overall growth. Congress has some great tools at their disposal to do this. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act would be a great first step. In addition to prohibiting wage discrimination among women and men, the Paycheck Fairness Act incentivizes greater transparency between employers and employees, by collecting pay information data and providing information on how to reduce pay disparities for employers and labor organizations.
Similarly, President Obama’s executive orders to prohibit federal contractors from punishing employees for discussing their pay, and to require that contractors provide data on their employees’ compensation, will effectively provide greater transparency between employees and employers regarding pay rates. Greater transparency will in turn help employees advocate for equal pay, and fairly and substantively shift bargaining power towards employees to set stronger wage standards—ultimately closing the gender wage gap in a productive and fair way.