Women's wages finally are beginning to edge closer to men's, according to a new study, after nearly 60 years without appreciable gain. The Rand Corporation gives these precise figures: Women's income rose from 60 percent to 64 percent between 1980 and 1983, and is likely to go to 74 percent by the turn of the century.
That's welcome news, assuming it is borne out by subsequent studies. Wages ought to reflect the type and quality of work performed, not the gender of the worker.
Yet the structure of unequal pay for men and women is not yielding as quickly as women's recent educational advances and experience in the workplace would suggest it should. Women now make up more than half the college undergraduates in the United States and are a rapidly increasing percentage of graduate students in several academic areas.
Nonetheless, the Rand study does indicate that by seeking out a sound education women are on the right track to more equitable pay. It says women are earning more money primarily because their job skills are improving - and that in large measure stems from better education and from increased work experience.
This emphasis is at variance with the position of the women's movement, which tends to emphasize the progress yet to be made - that women still earn 59 cents for every dollar earned by men.
Beyond any precise wage comparison is a basic principle: that women and men should have equality of opportunity and responsibility, just as should blacks, Hispanics, and other minority members as well as whites. Under such equality women will progress more quickly across the board in the workplace, as their experience builds upon their education to yield more responsible positions and, consequently, higher salaries.
The gains of the early 1980s that the Rand study records have come at a time when many of the American economy's new jobs have been created in small businesses; the outlook is for a continuation of this trend. These smaller businesses, many run by women, tend to offer lower salaries than larger, longer-established firms, or than government. In the future increasing attention should be given to these small companies, not just to larger businesses and organizations, to ensure equality of opportunity and responsibility for women employees.
Women's progress is for both sexes to welcome, not fear. Society has much undone work to finish: women's fullest participation is necessary.