Policy Debate: Does a gender wage gap still exist?
Issues and Background
The average wage gap is not proof of widespread discrimination, but of women making choices about their educational and
professional careers in a society where the law has granted them equality of opportunity to do so. Comparable worth promotes
a dependence for women, and a reliance on government for protection. Given women’s achievements, such dependence is
unnecessary. American women enjoy historically unparalleled success and freedom, and the progress they have made in the
past half century will continue.
~Diana Furchtgott-Roth, April 12, 1999 testimony before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Equal pay has been the law since 1963. But today, 37 years later, women are still paid
less than men—even when we have similar education, skills and experience.
In 1999, women were paid 72 cents for every dollar men received. That's $28 less to
spend on groceries, housing, child care and other expenses for every $100 worth of work
we do. Nationwide, working families lose $200 billion of income annually to the wage
It's not like we get charged less for rent or food or utilities. In fact, we pay more for
things like haircuts and dry cleaning.
~AFL-CIO, http://www.aflcio.org/yourjobeconomy/women/equalpay/FactSheetTimeForEqualPay.cfm, 11/2003
The average wage rate for female workers has been below that for male workers
for as long as statistics have been recorded. In recent years, female wages have been
approximately equal to 3/4 of the level of male wages. At first glance, statistics such as this
may suggest that females are the subject of substantial discrimination in the labor
market. There is, however, a fair amount of disagreement among economists concerning the cause of
this wage differential.
No one seriously disputes the existence of a gender wage differential. The disagreement
primarily focuses on the cause of the wage differential. Is it the result of gender
discrimination? Or is it the result of differences in other characteristics
that are correlated with gender? A study by Jacob Mincer and Solomon Polachek indicates that
much of the gender wage difference is the result of differences in educational attainment and
work experience. Erica Groshen and others have found that most of the remaining gender wage
differential can be explained by differences in occupational choice.
Thus, the empirical evidence indicates that most (or all) of the male-female wage differential
is due to gender-related differences in occupational choice, educational attainment, and prior
work experience. Those who argue that the male-female wage differential is not a symptom of
discrimination suggest that this difference is the result of voluntary decisions on the part
of individuals in selecting their careers, educational attainment, and the level and timing of
labor force participation. Those who believe that the gender wage differential is due to
discrimination argue that discrimination affects women's choice of careers, educational attainment,
and labor supply decisions.
One of the main reasons for the male-female wage differential is that those occupations that
are disproportionately filled by women tend to be relatively low-paying occupations while
male-dominated occupations tend to offer high wages. Most secretaries, nurses, and elementary school
teachers are women while most engineers, surgeons, computer programmers, and chemists are men.
The "crowding" hypothesis suggests that the low wages received by women in these occupations
is due to a relatively large supply of labor in these female-dominated occupations. If women
voluntarily select these low-paid occupations then the lower wage is the result of voluntary
choice, not discrimination. This part of the wage differential is the result of discrimination,
though, if women are crowded into these occupations as a result of barriers to their entry into
higher-paying male-dominated professions. It is expected, however, that as the proportion of
women in male-dominated occupations continues to increase, the wage differential is likely to
While there are substantially more women than males in college today, this is a relatively
recent historical phenomena. Until the past 20 years, the proportion of women attending
college was substantially less than the proportion of males attending college. While the
educational attainment of young male and female workers is quite similar today, older women
in the labor force have lower levels of educational attainment than older males. Part of the
wage differential is due to the lower average level of educational attainment for women. It is
expected that this portion of the wage differential will narrow over time as more highly educated
women enter the labor market and older women retire.
Until the 1980s, most women withdrew from the labor force for a few years after the commencement of
childbearing. Today, most women with young children remain in the labor force. A typical woman
in the labor force, though, still has fewer years of prior work experience than a typical male.
Since earnings are strongly related to prior work experience, differences in work experience
explain part of the gender wage gap. It is expected that this part of the wage differential will
decline over time due to declining fertility rates over the past few decades and the more
continuous labor force attachment of younger female workers.
Those who argue that the wage differential is the result of discrimination argue that women are
more likely to withdraw from the labor force because they have less to lose by leaving. Lower
wages and reduced chances of promotion lower the incentives of women to remain in the labor force.
This argument suggests that the causality between work experience and wages is bidirectional.
While lower female wages may be partly due to lower levels of work experience,
these lower levels of work experience are also partly caused by lower female wages.
Those who believe that the male-female wage differential is the result of labor market discrimination
sometimes suggest that a "comparable worth" pay structure be introduced to eliminate the gender
wage gap. Under a comparable worth pay system, jobs are rated according using a number of criteria
such as: educational requirements, manual dexterity requirements, job stress, risk of injuries,
etc. Jobs that have similar ratings are assigned the same pay. Advocates of such a system suggest
that this system results in equal pay for equivalent work. Some studies, for example, have
suggested that secretaries and truck drivers are "comparable" jobs. Both involve long periods
of sitting, similar amounts of training, and repetitive tasks. Therefore, it is argued, the pay
of secretaries (a female-dominated occupation) should be equal to the pay of truck drivers (a
Opponents of comparable worth pay structures argue that the lower wage rate for secretaries
is the result of "crowding" in this labor market. Higher pay rates would encourage more
people to enter an occupation in which wages were initially low because there were already too
many workers in this labor market. A reduction in the pay rate for truck drivers would cause
fewer people to enter an occupation in which pay is initially high because there are relatively
few people willing to work in this occupation. Those who oppose comparable worth pay structures
argue that they would result in economic inefficiency by causing surpluses in labor markets in
which pay is raised and shortages in those labor markets in which pay is lowered.
While there are several reasons to believe that the gender wage gap will be reduced in the future,
this wage gap remains relatively large. As long as this gap remains, this issue is likely to provide
a major source of debate among economists, policymakers, and the general public.
Primary Resources and Data
- Equal Pay Act of 1963
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was designed to eliminate gender discrimination in wages. This Act
prohibits sex discrimination in wages for male and female workers in a given firm. It allows
pay differentials based upon length of job tenure, merit, and productivity differentials.
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly banned gender discrimination in hiring or in
establishing wage rates.
- U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, "Explaining Trends in the Gender Wage Gap"
This June 1998 report examines the reasons for the existence of the gender wage gap. It is noted that
a substantial portion of the wage gap may be explained by differences in education, work experience,
hours of work, and occupational choice. The difficulties in separating the effects of discrimination from
the effects of preferences and choice are also discussed.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) web site contains information on employment
law related to gender discrimination. Methods of remedying discrimination are also discussed.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "Job Patterns For Minorities And Women In Private Industry"
This web site, provided by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, shows the proportion of
women employed in an extensive set of occupations. Data is sorted by 3-digit SIC code and by job category within the
- National Organization for Women
The web site of the National Organization for Women contains arguments suggesting that gender
discrimination is a significant factor in explaining the male-female wage differential. The
Economic Justice and
Affirmative Action pages on this site are of particular relevance.
- National Committee on Pay Equity
The National Committee on Pay Equity argues for the elimination of the gender wage gap. They provide
statistics on the magnitude of the male-female wage gap over time, and a table listing earnings
by education (this does not take into account, however, the effect of occupation and work experience).
This group argues for legislation that attempts to eliminate the gender wage gap.
- U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau
The Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor posts an extensive collection of information
related to female labor force activity.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Women in the Labor Force: A Databook"
This May 2005 document provides extensive statistics concerning the status of women in the U.S.
labor force. The Adobe Acrobat
viewer plugin is required to view the documents on this site. You may download this
viewer by clicking here.
- Monthly Labor Review, "Changes in women's labor force participation in the 20th century"
This February 16, 2000 article describes changes in female labor force participation rates
during the last half of the 20th century.
- U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Money Income in the United States, 2002"
This Census Bureau document contains detailed statistics on the distribution
of income and earnings in the United States. It documents the magnitude
of the male-female earnings differential. Income statistics are available
by gender, educational attainment, and ethnicity. The Adobe Acrobat
viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download this
viewer by clicking here.
- U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2005"
This Census Bureau document contains a variety of statistics on the distribution
of income in the United States. Some of this data is broken down by gender.
The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download this
viewer by clicking here.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2005"
This report summarizes data on the male-female wage gap in 2005. It
finds that median weekly earnings of full-time women workers was 81%
of the level of full-time male workers. This study also notes that the
wage gap is larger for older workers than for younger workers. Evidence
of a decline in the wage gap over time is also discussed in this report.
The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You
may download this viewer by clicking here.
- National Center for Educational Statistics, "Median annual income of year-round, full-time workers 25 years old and over, by highest level of educational attainment and sex: 1990 through 2004"
This web page contains statistics on nominal and real median earnings for full-time, full-year male and female workers with alternative
levels of education during the years 1990 through 2004.
- Monthly Labor Review, "Women's earnings growth higher than men's at all education levels, 1979-2000"
The table appearing on this page shows the growth rate of earnings between 1979 and 2000 for men and women by
level of educational attainment. As the title suggests, for all categories of educational attainment, the growth rate of
female earnings exceeded the growth rate of male earnings.
- Philip L. Rones, Randy E. Ilg, and Jennifer E. Gardner, "Trends in Hours of Work since the mid-1970s"
Philip L. Rones, Randy E. Ilg, and Jennifer E. Gardner find that women are exhibiting more continuous
labor force participation in this April 1997 Monthly Labor Review article.
The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download
this viewer by clicking here.
- U.S. Department of Labor, "Nontraditional Occupations for Women in 2005"
The U.S. Department of Labor provides this list of occupations in which relatively few women are
employed. Statistics are provided on the number of women employed in each
occupation, the average weekly wage, the gender wage gap, and the proportion of women in each occupation.
- U.S. Department of Labor, "20 Leading Occupations of Employed Women, 2005 annual averages"
This page, provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, contains information on the 20 occupations that
employ the largest number of women. Statistics are provided on the number of women employed in each
occupation and the proportion of women in each occupation.
- U.S. Department of Labor, "Occupational Outlook Handbook"
The Occupational Outlook Handbook contains detailed descriptions of job duties and employment
prospects in a wide variety of occupations.
- Christopher Snowbeck, "Study Uncovers Gender Gap in Physician Pay"
This July 18, 2000 news article discusses a University of Pittsburgh study that finds that female physicians
earn significantly less than male physicians. In particular, this study finds that the hourly wage of
female physicians is 14% below the wage of male physicians.
- Cornell University, "The Cornell Couples and Careers Study"
This document provides information about the Couples and Careers Study conducted by Cornell
University. This study collected information on a sample of dual-earner households. This study
finds that workers feel constrained by career considerations to work more than their desired number
of hours. Evidence is also presented that indicates that men still spend more time in paid market
labor than their working wives. The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document.
You may download this viewer by clicking
Different Perspectives in the Debate
- Glenn Sacks, "Male-Female Wage Gap Largely Reflects Male Sacrifice, not 'Discrimination'"
Glenn Sacksexamines the magnitude and causes of the gender wage gap. He notes that most of the
observed differences in male and female wages can be explained by differences in average hours,
work experience, educational attainment, shift differentials, and career choice.
- Diana Furchtgott-Roth, "Still Hyping The Phony Pay Gap"
Diana Furchtgott-Roth argues that the observed gender wage gap is due to educational, career, and
family choices on the part of women in this January 31, 2000 online article. She suggests that a comparison of the average
wages of male and female full-time workers is meaningless since it does not control for gender differences
in average hours, educational attainment, occupation, and other factors that affect wages.
- Women Employed Institute, "Raising Women's Pay: An Agenda for Equity"
This May 2000 report finds that a gender wage gap persists in all occupational classifications and for all levels of
educational attainment. This institute advocates the use of comparable worth pay systems and other policies designed to
reduce the gender wage gap. The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download
this viewer by clicking here.
- Howard J. Wall, "The Gender Wage Gap and Wage Discrimination: Illusion or Reality?"
Howard J. Wall discusses the gender wage gap in this October 2000 article appearing in The Regional Economist,
a publication of the St. Louis Federal Reserve District Bank. He argues that the evidence indicates that
at most 25% of the gap is due to discrimination; the remaining 75% or more of the wage gap is due to
differences in hours worked, educational attainment, work experience, and occupation. Wall cites a
study by Blau and Kahn that indicates that 6.2 cents of the gender wage gap is due to unexplained factors.
This unexplained component may be the result of discrimination, or unobservable differences in
human capital investment. Wall notes that it is difficult to determine whether occupational segregation
is the result of voluntary choice or of labor market discrimination that limits employment choice for women.
- Claudia Goldin, "The Rising (and then Declining) Significance of Gender"
In this online May 10, 2002 working paper, Claudia Goldin provides a detailed discussion of changes in the labor force participation of
women. She argues that discrimination against women in the labor force grew substantially in the first several decades of the
20th century, but has declined during the past few decades. (The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download
this viewer by clicking here. )
- Claudia Goldin, "The Quiet Revolution that Transformed Women's Employment, Education, and Family"
In this January 2006 Ely lecture at the American Economic Association annual meetings,
Claudia Goldin examines the evolution of women's expectations concerning future labor force participation.
She finds that women entering the labor force between 1900 and the mid-1970s worked more than they
had anticipated when they were young. In consequence, they invested less in education then would have been optimal given their relaized
labor force participation. By the latter part of this century, though, women began to correctly
anticipate higher and more continuous lifetime labor force participation. In response to this
"quiet revolution" in expectations, educational attainment and human capital investments rose
substantially for young women in the last few decades of the 20th century. This revolution in
expectations was also accompanied by a delay in age at first marriage and a reduction in planned
fertility levels as women increasingly based their plans on their expected careers. Goldin suggests
that the reduction in the male-female wage gap is partly the result of the increased human capital
investments attained over the last few decades by women who are now more accurately forecasting
their lifetime labor force participation. (The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download
this viewer by clicking here.)
- Claudia Goldin, Lawrence F. Katz, and Ilyana Kuziemko, "The Homecoming of American College Women: The Reversal of the College Gender Gap "
In this Fall 2006 Journal of Economic Perspectives article, Claudia Goldin, Lawrence F. Katz, and
Ilyana Kuziemko examine trends in college enrollments. They note that college attendance rates for
males and females were roughly equivalent during the years from 1900 to 1930, but male attendance rates
climbed after WW II. Female attendance rates, though, began to increase more rapidly in the 1970s and
have exceeded male college attendance rates since the early 1980s. They attribute this shift to changes
in female labor force participation rates and shifts in the composition of labor demand that have
disproportionately increased labor demand in occupations and industries in which female college
graduates are more likely to work (thereby providing a higher rate of return to education for
females). To support this argument, they cite studies that indicate that the rate of return to
college education is higher for females than for males. (The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is
required to view this document. You may download this viewer by clicking here. )
- Deborah Walker, "Value and Opportunity: The Issue of Comparable Pay for Comparable Worth"
Deborah Walker examines the economic arguments concerning comparable worth legislation in this
May 31, 1984 Policy Analysis article. She argues that wage differentials across occupations
reflect differences in society's evaluation of the services provided by workers in these occupations.
Market determined wages encourages the flow of labor to those markets in which the labor services
are most highly valued. Walker argues that a comparable worth pay system disrupts this process and encourages labor
to shift from high-valued to low-valued uses.
- AFL-CIO, "Working Women"
This web site contains links to a variety of pages discussing the AFL-CIO's position on the gender
wage gap. Numerous statistics are presented supporting the existence of a gender wage gap.
- AFL-CIO, "How Much Will the Pay Gap Cost You?"
This page, provided by the AFL-CIO provides an online calculator that measures the impact
of the wage gap on women's lifetime earnings. (The assumptions and underlying model used to compute these
results do not appear to be specified on this page.)
- Borgna Brunner, "The Wage Gap: A History of Pay Inequity and the Equal Pay Act"
Borgna Brunner provides a brief history of the gender wage gap and the Equal Pay Act in this article.
She notes that, until the early 1960s, jobs were listed separately for men and women with
different pay rates, even for identical jobs. Brunner observes that a substantial gender wage gap
still exists nearly 30 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act.
- Patricia Hausman, "I Am Woman, Hear Me Whine"
Patricia Hausman argues, in this April 3, 2001 online article, that the gender wage gap is very small. She suggests that
many activists ignore studies that indicate that most of the male-female wage differential is the result of
differences in hours worked, previous work experience, educational choice, and occupational choice.
- Naomi Lopez, "Free Markets, Free Choices II: Smashing the Wage Gap and Glass Ceiling Myths"
Naomi Lopez argues, in this online article, that the wage gap does not exist when fields of study,
educational attainment, and work experience are held constant. She suggests that unequal outcomes are the
primarily the result of individual preferences and decisions, not discrimination.
- Tony Dobbins, "Gender Wage Gap Examined"
In this November 2000 article appearing on Eironline, Tony Dobbins discusses trends in the gender wage gap
in Ireland. He notes that the gender wage gap had fallen from 20% in 1987 to slightly over 15% in
1997. Dobbins cites studies that suggest that approximately three-fourths of the wage gap can
be explained in terms of differences in labor force participation and other factors. The
remaining one-fourth of the wage gap may be the result of discrimination. He argues that "high-quality,
affordable childcare, particularly for low-income families and single mothers, is crucial" if the
gender wage gap is to be reduced.
- U.S. Department of Education, "The Condition of Education 1995: Educational Progress of Women"
This 1995 report describes the increase in female educational attainment that has been occurring for the past
several decades. It notes that women tend to start school earlier and are less likely to repeat a grade. It
is observed that females tend to receive higher verbal scores on standardized tests, but lower science and
math scores. This report also notes that women are much more likely to major in education, English, foreign languages,
communications, psychology and health-care fields. Women are less likely to declare college majors in math,
engineering, computer science, or the physical sciences.
- National Center for Educational Statistics, "Women in Mathematics and Science"
This July 1997 report examines trends in women's education in mathematics and science. It is observed
that males and females have similar performance levels in math and science until age 13. While the
gender difference in math scores appears to be declining, the gender difference in science scores
has remained relatively large. While similar proportions of males and females complete advanced math
and science classes in high school, their performance tends to be lower. This report indicates that
women are much less likely to select math or science related majors in college. It is also observed that
female science majors tend to receive lower salaries than their male counterparts in their first
job after college. The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download
this viewer by clicking here.
- Alicia C. Dowd, "Collegiate Grading Practices and the Gender Pay Gap"
Alicia C. Dowd examines the effect of grading policies by academic departments on the gender pay
gap in this January 27, 2000 article appearing in Education Policy Analysis Archives. She
observes that math related majors (such as mathematics, economics, chemistry, engineering, and
physics) assign lower average grades to students than do departments in which verbal skills are
more important (such as English, history, and education). Dowd cites studies that indicate that
women are more likely than males to avoid majors in which they experience relatively low
grades. This, combined with the fact that college-age females tend to have higher verbal and
lower math skills, encourages females to major in those disciplines in which verbal
skills are highly valued. Males are more likely to major in disciplines that rely on high levels
of mathematical skills. Because math-oriented majors are more highly valued in the labor market,
males receive higher wages. Dowd suggests that grading policies should be standardized across
academic departments to allow grades to be a better signal of relative performance.
- Brown University, "Achieving Gender Equity in Science Classrooms: A Guide for Faculty"
This online document examined methods of retaining more women in math and science related majors.
Several studies are cited that examine why women are less likely to major in such disciplines. It is
argued that the gender gap in science related fields could be reduced if teaching styles are
modified to accommodate a wider variety of learning styles.
- Minnesota Department of Employee Relations, "Pay Equity / Comparable Worth"
The Minnesota Department of Employee Relations web site contains detailed information about the implementation
of their comparable worth pay system. This site even includes downloadable pay equity analysis
software that may be used to assist in the implementation of a comparable worth pay system.
- Steven E. Rhoads, "Would Decentralized Comparable Worth Work? The Case of the United Kingdom"
In this in this Cato Regulation article, Steven Rhoads examines the "equal value" pay system used in England.
This system is essentially a decentralized form of a comparable worth pay structure in which firms
can use any nondiscriminatory pay system. Disputes are resolved in industry tribunals consisting of
three people, one of whom is a lawyer. Independent experts render opinions on the merits of these cases. Rhoads
notes that the lack of uniform standards result in the use of a wide variety of standards by these
experts in evaluating discrimination cases. He finds that the U.K. system provides arbitrary results.
Rhoads believes that concerns over this arbitrary process will eventually result in the adoption of
centralized standards. He suggests that such a centralized system will still result in arbitrary and
- Ann Crittenden, "Mothers Pay Price for Nurturing Human Capital"
In this February 21, 2001 article, Ann Crittenden argues that society generally undervalues
the role that women play in creating human capital. She notes that women play the largest share in
creating human capital through childbearing and childrearing. Yet, these activities tend to
be unrecognized because no salary is attached to these tasks. GDP undercounts the value of women's
contribution because it does not measure the value of unpaid activities. Crittenden argues that
divorce laws in many states also do not fully take into account the value of the household
services provided by women. She suggests that this results in a dependency that is harmful to
- Infoplease.com, "The Wage Gap in Pro Sports"
This online article describes gender differences in wages in professional sports as well as
gender differences in access to sports scholarship funds.
- Heidi Hartmann, "The gender wage gap is real"
Heidi Hartmann argues, in this September 14, 2005 online article, that the gender wage gap imposes
substantial economic costs on women. She argues that the wage gap grows larger as men and women age.