(This is one of a series of posts on the wage gap.)
Changes in the pay gap over time.
In 1972, women working full-time year-round earned 57.9% of what men working full-time year-round earned. In 1999, measured the same way, women earned 72.2% of what men earned. Many people, when they see this data, think that it means that women’s pay has been steadily climbing. But the real story is more complex then that; women’s pay hasn’t risen steadily, and not all of the closing wage gap is because women’s position has improved.
In 1951, women actually earned 63.9% of what mean earned – so women in 1972 actually earned less, compared to men, then women in the 1950s did! Using 1972 as the base year isn’t totally fair, because 1972 had the biggest pay gap between women and men of any year of the last 50 years. But throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the pay gap was always between 58% and 60% – while in the 1950s, the pay gap was usually closer to 64%. So it’s not true that the pay gap has been steadily getting smaller in the last 50 years.
The pay gap didn’t really change much until the 1980s. In 1981, the pay gap was 59.2%; in 1990, it was 71.6%, a change of over 12%. In 1999, on the other hand, the pay gap was 72.2%, a change of less than 1% since 1990.
So the pay gap was more-or-less stable from the 1950s until the 1980s; shrunk quite a lot in the 1980s; and stayed pretty much the same during the 1990s.
Women’s rising pay or men’s shrinking pay?
Women’s pay has been going up over time; however, women’s wage growth doesn’t account for all of the shrinking of the pay gap. From 1979 to 1989, the median woman’s hourly wage went up 52 cents (in 1997 dollars). During that same time period, the median man’s hourly wage went down $1.32. From 1989 to 1997, women’s pay went up only 8 cents, while men’s pay fell 88 cents.
What this means is that most of the reason the wage gap is smaller now than it was in 1979 is that men, on average, are being paid less.
Another way of looking at this is to ask: what would have happened to the pay gap if men’s average wages hadn’t fallen? In 1973, an average women’s hourly wage was 63% of an average man’s hourly wage; by 1997, an average women earned 79% of what an average man earned in an hour (a rise of 16%). But if men’s wages hadn’t dropped since 1973, an average woman in 1997 would have earned 67% of what an average man earned in an hour – a rise of only 4% since 1973.
(Data on the pay gap and men’s shrinking pay comes from The State of Working America 1998-1999, by Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein and John Schmitt. Graphic from epinet.org)