Women's Pay Gap and Choice

Despite all the progress toward women's equality, women who work full time are still earning only 75 cents on average to every dollar earned by men.

Driving home that point, The National Committee on Pay Equity has chosen this Tuesday, April 16, to remind Americans that all women would need to work at least an extra two days in a workweek to earn almost as much as all men do in one normal workweek.

Why does such a wage gap still persist?

Economists differ in their explanations. And yet this income disparity is seen as a key indicator of how women are treated – in both the workplace and at home.

Fortunately, the women's movement and civil rights enforcement have ended most gender discrimination in setting wages. Now advocates are focused on ensuring that working women have female mentors and role-models, while they try to remove subtle discrimination in promotions – the "glass ceiling" that accounts for so few women being in top management.

Many economists, however, say many women have lower-paying jobs because of choices made in their home life, such as taking time out to raise children. Or women take part-time, low-wage jobs for the flexibility. When they do reenter the workforce full time, they're often behind their working peers in pay and promotions.

But as more women feel empowered to make career choices, their pay rises.

Another explanation is that women don't really make the choice to drop off the career ladder or to stay at a lower job rung. They may, for example, accept the expectations of others to take traditional jobs for women, such as nursing, which have low market wages. They must often take jobs that don't allow for the unpredictability of families. Working moms may find their income can't pay for day care, or day care doesn't suit their child. If they are married, they may realize their husbands are not inclined to child rearing (or house chores), so they either quit work or go part time.

So as their life choices seem to become a life burden, women's income slips behind men's.

No matter what the explanation, much progress has been made in reducing the pay gap. While government still has a major role, employers can do more. Many have found a market advantage in supporting working mothers or putting women in management. And in the home, men and women are getting smarter in defining their marital relationships, often before tying the knot.

Just as women now outnumber men in college, perhaps someday their average pay will surpass men's – and that may make up for lost wages.

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