The pay gap between women and men in the United States has been declining fairly steadily since the early 1980s. As the chart below shows, the ratio of median annual earnings by women to that by men (among those employed full-time year-round) increased from .60 in 1980 to nearly .80 in 2006. That’s a good thing insofar as it reflects greater labor market access and opportunity for women.
But the celebration ought to be tempered. Most of us are likely to assume this means women’s earnings have been rising faster than men’s. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Women’s median earnings have been rising. But men’s have been flat; they haven’t budged in a generation.
(The data are in table A-2 of this Census Bureau report.)
There’s no reason to presume a causal relationship between the two; it isn’t likely that men’s earnings have been stagnant because women’s have been rising. After all, prior to the mid-1970s both were increasing.
Still, this poses an interesting question for egalitarians. If forced to choose, which period’s outcome would you prefer? 1960-73, in which both groups experienced absolute increases but the gender gap held constant? Or 1980-2006, in which the gap declined but men experienced no absolute increase?
If you favor the latter period, let me make the choice a little harder. The average rate of growth of women’s median earnings during 1960-73 was 2.2% per year. For 1980-2006 it was 0.9% per year.