Economic Development Women's Earnings: A Ten Year Review

Janet L. Norwood and Elizabeth Waidman

Vol. 2, No. 6, 1980, pp. 23, 25

The old saying that "the more things change, the more they stay the same" seems to apply to women's earnings in relation to men's no matter which earnings are examined. In 1939, median earnings for women who worked year round, full time in the experienced labor force were $788, or 58 percent of the median for men. Similar figures for 1977, the latest period for which earnings over an entire year are available, show median earnings of about $8,800 for women, or 59 percent of the median for men.

In the 10 years since the Census Bureau began to collect weekly earnings data, the ratio of women's to men's usual earnings has shown about the same pattern in May 1978, just as in May 1967, women full time workers still had median earnings that were only a little over 60 percent (61-62 percent) of the median earnings for men.

By occupation, these data show that, although the male-female earnings ratio has varied considerably over the years, the median for women is usually substantially lower than the median for men. For example, in sales occupations, where a large proportion of women are employed in retail stores while a large proportion of men sell cars, machinery,and insurance, women's earnings in the second quarter of 1979 were about half of men's earnings. In the professional technical area, where proportionately more women than men are in the lower paying occupations, i.e., nurses rather than physicians, women's earnings were approximately 70 percent of men's. In the clerical field, women's wages were about 63 percent of men's wages.

Almost all secretaries are women, as are 97 percent of all nurses, 86 percent of all file clerks, and 85 percent of librarians. On the other hand, only 9 percent of the industrial engineers are women, 9 1/2 percent of all lawyers and judges, 11 percent of all doctors, and 30 percent of all accountants.

These more detailed ouional statistics demonstrate that, on the average, employed women are working primarily in jobs at the low end of the pay scale. Even in a generally less traditional industry sector for women such as manufacturing, women are concentrated in such industry as clothing or electrical equipment where wages are lower than in many other types of factories.

The overall female-male earnings gap needs to be interpreted with care. Occupational and industry differences and the extent of labor force activity are, obviously, not the only factors involved. The fact that


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married women constitute the largest proportion of women workers may also play a large role in the female-male wage differential. Some analysts believe that many married women may put convenience of location or flexibility of hours above earnings or that they may not be as able as men to accept a promotion to a job with heavier responsibilities or a job which requires a great deal of overtime. Others believe that women have not, yet gained the self-confidence needed to seek aggressively the opportunities taken by men.

Whether these analysts are correct in their interpretations or not, we should not overlook discrimination. Many of the court settlements over equal pay in recent years have been based on findings of discrimination. Proof of discrimination, however, must go much farther than sample survey data. But these statistics can continue to provide guidelines as to what the earnings situation is for women and men in similar circumstances.

Obviously no one can predict the future with certainty. No one knows the extent to which working women will move out of the traditional occupations; or the degree to which women will gain earnings parity with men; or if their recent labor force gains will moderate. Whatever the scenario, however, women are likely to remain a permanent and important part of the work force.

Taken from the publication, Women in the Labor Force: Some New Data Series written by Janet L. Norwood and Elizabeth Waidman.