By Jennifer Friedlin
Monday, September 1, 2003
This Labor Day, women can look back on the second quarter of the year as boasting the narrowest wage gap in history. The statistic, however, was caused by lower male wages and is not expected to end the earnings-discrepancy debate.
According to the 2001 Bureau of Labor Statistics report on median weekly salaries issued last year, women earned less than men in nearly every job category. Among racial groups there was also a discrepancy: white women earned 15.5 percent more than black women and 35.3 percent more than Hispanic women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is scheduled to release its 2002 report in early September.
Ron Bird, chief economist with the Employment Policy Foundation, a public policy research and educational foundation in Washington, D.C., says that statistics regarding the wage gap are not fine-tuned enough to account for a number of other relevant factors, including age and experience. When it comes to the difference in earnings between men and women, he says, workers are the ones making the decisions that lead to a gap.
"When you factor in differences in occupation, differences accounted for by age, occupational choice, total amount of experience in the workforce, then almost all of the supposed gap disappears," Bird said.
As for the difference in earnings between the races, Bird said the discrepancy stems from systemic problems such as access to education and resources that no piece of pay-equity legislation can solve.
"To the extent there's a problem, it's not because of the behavior of employers. Most employers are committed to equity and diversity," Bird said.
While statistics regarding the national wage gap can be explained by a variety of divergent theories, research on the state level has shown that proactive changes would be needed in some cases to quickly achieve a level playing field for men and women.
A study by the University of Wyoming published in May found that men in the state are clustered in the higher paying industries, such as mining, transportation and utilities. And in certain fields, education does little to rectify the problem, since many of the higher paying jobs in the sectors dominated by men do not require college degrees.
In order to correct the discrepancy, the study found, Wyoming would either have to change its economic base or direct women toward the higher paying sectors.
"The wage gap is closing slowly over time as society changes," the report stated. "The question for the political process in Wyoming is whether some of the things that might be done to speed along the reduction of disparity are desirable or possible."
Jennifer Friedlin is a writer based in New York City.
Economic Policy Institute--"Labor Market Left Behind: Evidence shows that post-recession economy has not turned into a recovery for workers"
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