Male-Female Pay Gap Persists and Starts Early, Study Finds

October 24, 2012

Nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was enacted, women continue to earn less than men do throughout their careers, and the gap is seen as soon as one year out of college, a new study has found.

In the study, researchers with the American Association of University Women looked at the earnings of female and male college graduates who were working full time in 2009 (the most recent year for which data were available), one year after they graduated. According to a report describing the study, "Graduating to a Pay Gap," the researchers found that, after controlling for factors such as college major, occupation, and number of hours worked, women's pay was 82 percent of their male counterparts' pay one year after graduation.

Christianne M. Corbett, a senior researcher at the AAUW and a co-author of the report, said her organization had been tracking the pay gap for decades, but it was hard to compare women and men in the work force because of different choices they might make in their careers.

"We decided that to really compare apples to apples, we had to look right at the beginning of the college-educated workers' careers," she said.

The results showed that, on average, men earned nearly $8,000 more than women did one year after graduating. (The figures were $42,918 for men and $35,296 for women.) The study also showed that college major is an important factor in graduates' earnings. For example, women who majored in business earned about $38,000, while their male counterparts earned about $45,000, one year out. Such a gap was typical of all types of majors, including fields that are predominantly female, such as teaching.

The researchers also looked at how the pay gap affects the burden of repaying student-loan debt for full-time workers who graduated in 2008. They found that 53 percent of women and 39 percent of men were paying a greater percentage of their earnings toward their student-loan debt than what the researchers estimate a typical woman or man could reasonably afford to pay.

Those proportions have risen, particularly for women, over the years: In 2001 the figures were 38 percent of women and 27 percent of men.

Ms. Corbett said the findings demonstrate how much women struggle because of the gender pay gap. "For women who take out college loans, a bigger chunk of their paycheck goes to student loans," she said. "The numbers are really telling about how many women experience difficulty paying."

The report offers some suggestions that could help remedy the pay gap. First, it says, women can make different choices to enhance their earning potential, such as paying attention to which majors offer the best salaries and becoming more willing to negotiate for higher salaries.

Such measures, however, are not enough, Ms. Corbett said. Because women are paid less in every field, she said, "making a different job choice won't avoid the pay gap."

Therefore, she said, it is up to employers and lawmakers to take stronger action. The study suggests that new legislation is needed to modernize and strengthen the policies that exist, and that employers need to check their own pay scales to make sure they are paying women equally.

"This is not something that women can do on their own," Ms. Corbett said. "Research shows that people tend to undervalue women's work. This is something we really have to work on if we want to fix the pay gap."