BOSTON — WOMEN, on average, are paid less than men in the United States. They also are less likely to be covered by such company benefits as pensions, health insurance, and disability.
The wage gap is well-known to economists. Females earn about 66 percent of the average male salary. About half this gap can be explained by differences in observable characteristics. For instance, the average level of education and work experience of women is less than that of men. The other half could be the result of discrimination and unknown factors, economists say.
Now Janet Currie, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has found that women also do more poorly in benefits, even when such characteristics as age, education, marital status, and the number of children are taken into account.
In a National Bureau of Economic Research paper, however, Ms. Currie finds that when wage levels are taken into account, the gender gaps in pension and health coverage disappear.
"This finding," she notes, "suggests that gender gaps in benefits coverage are associated primarily with the fact that women earn low wages." Women tend to work in predominantly "female" jobs, while men work in "male" jobs. Her findings are consistent with a hypothesis that wages and benefits in female jobs are depressed because of the crowding of women into these areas. Women may prefer these jobs, or may be discouraged or prevented from taking male jobs.
But the benefits gap does not appear to be a separate phenomenon from the fact that women work in places where they are paid less. Thus the gap is apparently not a matter of employers discriminating against women directly in giving benefits, Currie suggests.
In one benefits area, sick leave, women are 10 percent more likely to be covered than men.
Nowadays, nonwage compensation accounts for between 30 to 40 percent of labor costs. The benefits gender gap plus the wage gap can make women cheaper labor.
Moreover, gender gaps in benefits coverage can have significant effects. High poverty rates among elderly women have been linked to lack of pension coverage. Many female heads of a family stay on welfare because they cannot find jobs with adequate health-insurance coverage.
In her paper, Currie uses a survey of employee benefits conducted with the 1988 Current Population Survey of the Census Bureau to investigate gender differences.
Currie finds that married women, if they are covered by a health plan, are only half as likely as married men to have a plan which covers their spouse and children. This could reflect choices made by women themselves, often because they do not want to duplicate their husband's coverage.
Sixty-seven percent of married women report that their employer pays for some or all of their health plan, while for married men it is 85 percent. But, Currie notes, 30 percent of married women do not know whether the employer pays or not, compared with 12 percent of married men. Hence, the difference in reported generosity may be an artifact of the missing data.