Women gaining ground in pay battle -- but slowly

Monday, July 26 2010

Janet Bagnall, Montreal Gazette

Published: Sunday, August 12, 2007

On university campuses in Canada and the United States, women have been in the majority for at least 10 years. Yet this almost meteoric rise in women's educational attainment in the 1990s has failed to close the persistent wage gap between men and women.

In Canada, the wage gap in mean earnings between university-educated men and women aged 25 to 29 was more than 18 per cent in 2001: Women's mean earnings were $36,782 compared to men's at $45,054.

The usual explanations are that women still congregate in traditionally female and comparatively underpaid fields like education and they are called on to care for family members.

More recently, however, a different wage gap has emerged: Young women in Manhattan, Boston and Dallas, some of the most urban environments on the continent, have overtaken young men in earnings.

According to a report this month in the New York Times, Queen's College demographer Andrew Beveridge found that in 2005 among New York City workers in their 20s, women earned 117 per cent of what men made. In Dallas, the Times reported, young women outstripped even New York women, earning 120 per cent of what their male counterparts earned. Dallas topped the new wage gap.

The question, of course, is why? The gap in favour of men's higher earnings has long seemed impervious to women's higher educational attainment, their entry into non-traditional fields and their full-time participation in the labour force. What changed?

Experts interviewed by the New York Times suggested that young women in big cities are advancing because they tend to be unmarried and childless and therefore are willing and able to throw themselves into a career. They are also much better educated than their male counterparts: Fifty-three per cent of young women working in New York had graduated from university, compared to 38 per cent of men in their 20s.

Big cities seem also to have become a magnet for young, educated, ambitious women. This is a result, Diana Rhoten of the Social Science Research Council in New York is quoted in the Times as saying, of big cities offering greater workplace opportunity and less sex discrimination than smaller centres.

Big cities also offer bigger salaries than smaller cities or suburbs, another enticement.

Encouraging as the news is that there are places where bright, educated and ambitious young women will not be held back by discrimination, it's useful to look at another of Beveridge's studies on New York, published online in March by the Citizens Union Foundation.

In it, Beveridge points out that "in most occupations, men out-earn women." And how. In Manhattan, where an amazing 63 per cent of women aged 25 to 64 have at least four years of university education, female lawyers and judges had median earnings of $139,558 in 2005, less than half the male median earnings of $284,208. Among physicians and surgeons, female median earnings were $81,493, compared to $208,827 for men. These figures are for full-time workers.

At the top levels of high-income fields, men still predominate. There might be more women in high-income fields like law and finance in New York than any other place, said Beveridge, but that doesn't change the essential equation.

Men will earn more because they still run the show.

This is a reminder that even in the best of circumstances -- big cities offering lots of opportunities and little discrimination -- it would be premature to assume that the success of a few young women heralds a new, more egalitarian era.

Of course, greater equality is exactly what it should herald, particularly in societies like the U.S. and Canada that pride themselves on being meritocracies.

People who study harder and work harder should earn more than people who don't.

If women fulfil the requirements for success in the workplace -- formal study, ambition, willingness to move around, long work hours -- they should reap the rewards of that effort.

The fact that most women's earnings trail men's for all kinds of extraneous reasons is morally wrong and economically wasteful.

What the new, reverse wage gap shows is that there is nothing inevitable about being underpaid on the basis of sex. It shows that there can be places where output is valued regardless of who provides it. This is definitely a step forward, even if men still own the finish line.

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007

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