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Businessweek Archives

`Women's Work' Is Still Waning...

Economic Trends


Albeit not as fast as in the past

There are still big differences in the jobs held by men and women. But as a recent article by economist Barbara H. Wootton in the Monthly Labor Review indicates, the occupational gender gap in the U.S. has shrunk considerably--sometimes in surprising areas.

To be sure, the biggest gains in gender desegregation occurred in the 1970s as women surged into the labor force, sex discrimination was outlawed, and females streamed into colleges and professional schools. While the pace has slowed since those watershed years, the advance seems sure to continue.

For one thing, roughly 1.5 million more women than men are enrolled in college today. And by 2007, experts project, the gap will widen further, with female college enrollment hitting 9.2 million, vs. 6.9 million for males.

That's important because, as Wootton notes, women have generally moved most rapidly into those occupational groups in which employment has been expanding. In recent decades, overall job growth has been fastest among managers and professionals--occupations that pay higher-than-average wages and generally require a college degree. In 1995, women accounted for 48% of such jobs--up from 35% two decades earlier.

Of course, women continue to far outweigh men in such areas as clerical and service occupations, just as men continue to dominate craft, repair, and construction jobs. Still, over the past decade, women have racked up significant gains in a wide range of traditionally male-dominated jobs from managers in such areas as finance, purchasing, and marketing to architects, physicians, lawyers, economists, musicians, and college teachers. Among the clergy, 1 out of 10 is now a woman, for example, as is 1 out of 6 law-enforcement officers and 1 out of 4 professional athletes.

By contrast, men posted relatively few gains in predominantly female occupations. Those where their share has risen--such as sales clerks, order clerks, waiters, kitchen workers, computer operators, health aides, and sewing-machine operators--seem clustered toward the lower end of the earnings spectrum.BY GENE KORETZReturn to top

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Future progress seems less certain

It seems logical that the wage gap between men and women would narrow as women flocked into traditionally male jobs. And that, in fact, has been the trend since the 1970s. Recently, however, the Labor Dept. reported that women's median weekly wages, which had risen from 62% of men's wages in 1979 to 77% in 1992, have since slipped back to 75%. Does this mean that progress in reducing the differential has finally run out of steam?

Probably not. For one thing, another Labor Dept. earnings yardstick, annual wages of full-time, year-round female workers, actually jumped from 71.4% of male wages in 1995 to 73.8% in 1996. (The gender gap is wider for annual wages than weekly wages because it includes bonuses and overtime, which accrue more heavily to male workers.) Many experts believe that the influx of former welfare recipients into low-wage jobs has lowered the weekly ratio in recent years.

Indeed, the goal of equal pay for women implies some male-female wage differential because of different social patterns and work experience. Women tend to interrupt their careers to have children, for example, and they bear the brunt of home responsibilities. For many, the critical issue is whether those women possessing the same skills, education, and experience as their male counterparts are receiving comparable pay for comparable work. And here the record appears positive.

In 1984, for example, the hourly wages of female full-time workers were only 67% of male wages. But after adjusting the ratio for differences in women's education, experience, and occupations, economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn of Cornell University report that the ratio was actually 82%. Moreover, by 1988, the researchers calculate that the adjusted ratio had risen to 88%--which suggests that discrimination in similar jobs was holding women's wages down by no more than 12%.

Such results suggest that future progress in reducing the gender pay gap will reflect the offsetting influences of two contradictory trends: the growing ranks of female college graduates and the increased labor force participation of poorly educated women at the bottom of the income scale. And, of course, the pace at which women at all educational levels continue to move into traditionally male-dominated occupations.BY GENE KORETZReturn to top

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