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The gender wage gap is real

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Snapshot for September 14, 2005.

The gender wage gap is real

Equal pay and the wage gap have become central issues in discussions of John Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court.  Roberts authored documents in 1983 and 1984 suggesting he did not believe that that there was a gender pay gap or that women experienced pay discrimination, and voicing opposition to proposed actions to promote pay equity, including the Equal Rights Amendment and comparable worth remedies.  For example, one memo referred to “the purported gender gap,” while another discussed “perceived problems” of gender bias, and another called comparable worth policies “highly objectionable” and “staggeringly pernicious.”1 Census Bureau data show that the gender pay gap was quite real in the 1980s, and persists today, even among men and women with comparable education levels. 

Figure A shows the average earnings for women and men at five time points, for college-educated, full-time, year-round workers who were 25-29 years old in 1984.  The total cumulative loss is estimated by comparing earnings of women and men who worked full-time, year-round at five points in time (1984, 1989, 1994, 1999, and 2004) using Current Population Survey data (and grouping women and men in five-year age ranges to calculate the average earnings gaps).2   The gap grows larger as women and men age. By 2004, college-educated women aged 45-49 earn $36,842 (or 38%) less per year than their college-educated male counterparts.  In their 20s, the gap was $11,001 or 25%.

Figure A

Figure B presents an estimate of the cumulative loss over time, due to the gender wage gap, for a college-educated woman since Judge Roberts dismissed the wage gap in 1984.  A woman with a college degree in 1984, who is now in her mid-40s, has lost a total of $440,743 between 1984 and 2004. 

Figure B

Women in their mid-40s today can tell you what their half-a-million lost dollars could have bought: a graduate education for themselves, a top-notch college education for several children, a house, nursing home expenses for an elderly parent, or a retirement portfolio, among other possibilities.  Sex-based wage inequality is not just “perceived”—it is painfully real and leads to substantial differences in opportunity and security for college-educated women compared to their equally educated male counterparts.3

For further information on the gender wage gap, see Acrobat PDF 

This week’s Snapshot was written by Institute for Women’s Policy Research president Heidi Hartmann.

1 Goldstein, Amy R., Jeffrey Smith, and Jo Becker. 2005. “Roberts Resisted Women’s Rights; 1982-86 Memos Detail Skepticism,” The Washington Post. August 19. p. A1.

2. The average earnings gaps at these five points were used to estimate the earnings gap over the full 21 years from 1984-2004 (to do so, the gaps in earnings in 1984 and 2004 were multiplied by three while the gaps in 1989, 1994, and 1999 were multiplied by five).

3. While women and men have somewhat different college majors, research shows the gender gap is larger than can be explained by differences in college majors. (Catherine J. Weinberger. 1998. “Race and Gender Wage Gaps in the Market for Recent College Graduates.” Industrial Relations. January. pp. 67-84.)

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