In the 1980s, the issue of "comparable worth" was the subject of
widespread commentary. It was often said that women earned just 60 cents for
every dollar men earned, the implication being that sexual discrimination
and nothing else was the cause of this gross inequity. Even many
conservatives acknowledged that women should receive equal pay for equal
Among the many problems with this analysis is that the data used
for it were very imprecise. Moreover, at the point at which the issue became
a hot topic, the labor force -- especially as it affected women -- was
undergoing massive change due to cultural and societal factors. As a
consequence, details about how particular women in certain occupations at
particular income levels and in specific age brackets were blurred or
ignored in the many articles discussing comparable worth.
The most generally cited data are from the Census Bureau, which
annually calculates the ratio of female to male earnings. These data are for
full-time, year-round workers. This ratio hit bottom for women in 1973 at
56.6 percent. By the time the issue became hot in 1980, the ratio had
already risen sharply to 60.2 percent. Since these data were released in
1981, the implication was often made that somehow Ronald Reagan's policies
were responsible for the disparity.
Those blaming Reagan for short-changing women seldom noted that
the female-to-male earnings ratio rose to 66 percent by his last year in
office. It continued to rise throughout the administrations of George W.
Bush and Bill Clinton, although it fell in Clinton's last two years from
74.2 percent in 1997 to 72.2 percent in 1999. I don't recall any feminists
blaming Clinton for the relapse, as they certainly would have done if a
Republican occupied the White House.
In any case, the policies of any president have almost nothing
to do with the earnings of men relative to women in any individual year or
even several years. The really important factors explaining this ratio have
to do with long-term factors such as how many women have college educations
relative to men, how many women work and how many work full-time versus
part-time, and such things as how many women choose to marry and have
children in comparison to their mothers.
The mid-1970s were a pivotal period for significant changes in
these critical factors. The labor force participation rate for women shot up
from 43.3 percent in 1970 to 51.5 percent in 1980. It has continued to rise
almost continuously to 60.1 percent in 2001. Meanwhile, the labor force
participation rate for men fell from 79.7 percent in 1970 to 77.4 percent in
1980 and 74.4 percent in 2001.
The flood of women into the labor force was bound to depress
women's wages, all other things being equal. This was especially the case
since many of those seeking work lacked college educations and had been out
of the labor force, due to child-rearing, for some time. Also, many women
actively sought work with flexible hours, such as nursing, that tended to
drive down wages in such occupations, since demand was relatively fixed.
However, these were all short-term phenomena. As time has gone
by, young women entering the labor force for the first time have found a
profoundly different environment than their mothers faced. According to an
article in the March issue of the Monthly Labor Review, young women today
are far more educated than their mothers. Thirty percent of women ages 25 to
34 now have four years of college education, compared with just 18 percent
Young women are also working more hours and are less likely to
be married or have children than their counterparts 25 years ago. The
percentage of such women working full-time rose from 74.3 percent in 1975 to
80.3 percent in 1999, and those working more than 50 hours a week rose from
45.5 percent to 62.9 percent. In 1975, just 11 percent of women ages 25 to
34 had never been married. By 1999, that figure almost tripled to 30
percent. The percentage of women with children in this age bracket fell from
76 percent to 60 percent over the same period.
In short, women were becoming more like men as far as employers
were concerned. As a consequence, their employment status and earnings have
risen. The percentage of women working in high-paying executive positions
increased from 9.2 percent in 1983 to 15.5 percent in 2000, while those
working in low-paying clerical positions fell from 30.2 percent to 22.6
percent. This has led to an increase in earnings relative to men from 67
percent in 1979 to 82 percent in 2000 for young women.
New Internal Revenue Service data confirm the growing equality
of the sexes in terms of income. They indicate that many women now earn more
than their male counterparts. As higher-earning younger women displace
lower-earning older women, this trend is likely to continue.