The Narrowing Wage Gap Between Men and Women Numbers may not be quite what they seem

by Elizabeth Wilcox

Good news apparently for women – the earnings gap between men and women is dropping, says the Current Population survey from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. But is the gap truly as narrow as it appears? Some say not.

According to the September report, women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio was a record 80 percent in 2003, up from 63 percent in 1979. But according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), the real picture is less encouraging. IWPR economist Heidi Hartmann, along with economist Steven Rose of opinion research company ORC Macro, say women in their prime earning years actually make about 38 cents for every dollar a man earns. Based on estimates of long-term earnings from 1983 – 1998, these economists found that women made some 62% less than men over that period.

Why the discrepancy? Dr. Hartmann says the conventional method of measuring the wage gap compares the annual earnings of men and women who work full-time, full-year in a given year. According to Dr. Hartmann, President of the IWPR, “This measure is misleading because it ignores the labor market experiences of over half of working women, who either work part-time or take time out of the workforce to care for children. The long-term gender earnings gap measures not only women’s earnings losses in a given year but also the cumulative effect on women’s earnings of balancing family and work responsibilities.”

And while the number of working women is much higher than it was 20 years ago, recent figures suggest that participation has leveled off in the last couple of years. In fact, the number of mothers with small children taking time off to care for small children has actually shown a slight increase. Once more, findings suggest that many of these mothers are among those who have the ability to command higher incomes.

That leaves us with one question. Once family and work responsibilities of these women diminish, will they be able to make up for lost ground, commanding higher incomes and thereby bringing down that gap? Let’s hope.