For the last decade, the wage gap for women has barely budged – the typical women who works full time, year round still only makes 77 cents for every dollar paid to her male counterpart. As highlighted by a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, there is a gender wage gap in virtually all jobs. Out of 265 major occupations, women’s median salary only exceeded men’s in one – personal care workers. The wage gap also occurs at all education levels, after experience is taken into account, and it gets worse as women’s careers progress. All told, even when accounting for a number of factors that can be expected to impact wages, it still exists. In fact, recent research shows that more than 40 percent of the wage gap is still unexplained, even after considering educational background, occupation, industry, work experience, union status, and race.

Despite this evidence of persistent unfair pay, recent weeks have also seen two oddly optimistic articles about women’s earnings. Let’s see what they’re so excited about:

First, Anya Kamenetz tries to reconcile why women’s earnings haven’t increased while their levels of education have. She concludes that women’s earnings are falling behind because (1) they have kids, (2) they chose jobs that don’t pay well, and (3) they are not “bold” or assertive. The onus in her explanation falls for the most part on women themselves – though she notes the structural element of some of these pieces, her answer is largely about planning correctly and making different choices. Who knew it was so easy – women can just make different choices and they’ll be paid fairly! This answer ignores the fact that even women who aren’t mothers see a wage gap. It ignores the fact that “women’s” jobs pay less precisely because women chose them – because women’s work is devalued – and, as noted above, that women are paid less even when they do chose the same profession as men. It ignores the fact that women often get punished for being bold or assertive. And the idea that these women might face discrimination? Not even mentioned.

Second, Liza Mundy writes in Time about how women’s increased earnings are redefining the household in terms of domestic work, purchasing decisions, and child care. She tells the tale of a Midwestern family that has become a family of female breadwinners. While we’re certainly happy to hear of the success of these women, the claim that our society is quickly headed in the direction of the norm of the female breadwinner may be a little overstated. While there has been a rise in the percentage of wives who out earn their husbands from 2000 to 2009, over half of the increase has come since the recession started in 2007. This spike may suggest that part of this increase was because of the heavy job loss men suffered in the recession. We want women to have the opportunity to contribute more to their families – but if their contribution only becomes a larger share of family income because men’s earnings are dropping, no one’s economic security has improved. This isn’t the path to equality that anyone wants. Examining data that come out in the next few years will yield important information on the longevity of these changes.

Percentage of wives who earn more than their husbands, 1987-2009


We’re thrilled to hear stories of families where dads feel that they can choose to stay at home or reduce their work obligations in favor of supporting their wives’ careers. The ability of each spouse to make these choices is something we strive for. It would be nice to see a chart that showed half of wives made more than their husbands, or – even better – that men and women who do comparable work with similar experience and education were actually paid equally for that work. What a novel idea.

Despite the good news of women contributing more to their household income, “the glass ceiling remains solid.” As sociologist Philip Cohen points out in Mundy’s article, the percentage of female managers has barely budged in two decades: 20 years ago managers were 35 percent women. Today? They’re only 38 percent. Women also still face discrimination in the workplace for choices surrounding pregnancy and parenting. And as noted above – the typical women is paid just 77 cents compared to her male counterpart.

We’ll wait to get excited until we see real progress on economic fairness and security for everyone.

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