There's a silver lining in the cloud over the economy: Female wage earners brought home 77 cents for every dollar earned by men compared with 76 cents the year before. That's a notable, even if small, gain in an economy handing out more pink slips than promotions.
Since 1979, the first year of comparable earnings data, women's wages have steadily increased while men's wages remained relatively stable. The high-tech boom in the '90s saw similar gains for both women and men, but - and this is important - women's wages overall have consistently lagged behind men's by about 25 percent.
With a stagnant economy, that gap may continue to close even more. While the dotcom bust has swelled the ranks of the jobless and trimmed raises, service industries - such as education, healthcare, and government, which tend to employ large numbers of women - experienced a slight increase in wages. The reason: Employers are trying to win new workers to those professions.
The US Department of Education forecasts a need for 2.2 million more teachers in the coming decade as older teachers retire and classrooms expand. The Federal Bureau of Health Professions reports 7 percent fewer registered nurses than needed.
The shortage of teacher and nursing is prompting some recruiting companies to use billboards for posting job opportunities. And the federal government, also facing waves of retiring employees, has launched a campaign online (www.usajobs.opm.gov), listing more than 15,000 job openings.
History shows that it is the many service jobs that generally stay afloat during recessions. It also shows that women are more willing to take up these underappreciated positions on the employment ladder.
Efforts to close the pay gap should focus on more than training women managers or finding childcare solutions that allow both parents to have uninterrupted careers.
They should also reward these undervalued jobs with higher wages. This will naturally attract more applicants.