"Women's average real wages increased 31 percent from 1969 to 1994, while men's stagnated."

American women have made "substantial progress" toward gender equality over the past 25 years, according to NBER Research Associate Francine Blau, although wage inequality among women has been rising, just as it has among men. After examining dozens of indicators of the well-being of women in the labor market and in the family, Blau finds smaller differences now between the percentage of women and men who are working for pay; that women now remain in the labor market more consistently during their work lives; and that differences between men and women in occupations, types of education, and rates of self-employment have diminished.

The wage gap between women and men also has narrowed substantially: the average female worker earned 56 percent of the average male worker's wage in 1969 and 72 percent in 1994. Within the family, wages of wives rose relative to those of their husbands during the past 25 years. Perhaps as a consequence, husbands did a small but notably greater amount of housework. Women's wage gains relative to men appear to have been distributed widely across education levels. Women's average real wages increased 31 percent from 1969 to 1994, while men's stagnated. Similarly, women upgraded their major occupations between 1979 and 1988: that is, women moved into higher paying occupational categories. On net, men's occupational shifts left their real wages unchanged, rising only 3 percent in 25 years.

In Trends in the Well-Being of American Women, 1970-1995 (NBER Working Paper No. 6206), Blau further notes that all this progress does not mean that discrimination and gender-related disabilities affecting women have disappeared. "... the challenges of combining work and family appear to continue to pose serious obstacles and dilemmas for women but, at this point, do not seem to affect men in the same way or at least to the same extent," she writes. Moreover, the increase in families headed by single women has hurt the economic well-being of women and their dependent children. This has been concentrated especially among women with less than 12 years of education and among black women.

More generally, parallel to the recent decline in the labor market position of lower skilled men, there has been a deterioration in the economic status of less educated women. Female high school dropouts experienced real wage declines in the 1980s and early 1990s. While women at all skill levels upgraded their occupations, women with low or moderate skills lost union jobs, although at a slower pace than men. Their representation in higher paying industries also fell at about the same rate as that of men.

In addition, less educated women are more likely to be single mothers than more educated women. The availability of welfare does not seem to account for the large number of single mothers in the United States, Blau finds. This country has lower levels of support for single mothers than other industrialized countries, yet it has one of the highest rates of single motherhood and the highest rate of teen pregnancy. Nor do other economic factors offer a complete explanation for the growth in the number of female-headed families, although there is some evidence that the deteriorating labor market position of less skilled men and women plays a part. Blau concludes that a principal role in this trend must be assigned to "changes in behavioral responses and shifts in social attitudes." There is now less social condemnation of unwed mothers, and divorce is easier.

The Digest is not copyrighted and may be reproduced freely with appropriate attribution of source.

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