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Growing Apart

A Political History of American Inequality

Colin Gordon, Author

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A Closer Look at Gender and Inequality

The gender gap in earnings is rooted in longstanding and multifaceted patterns of discrimination. For much of the last century, pervasive doubts about the propriety of women’s place in the labor market sharply curtailed both occupational and educational opportunities. When women did work, they labored in segregated occupational and professional niches: domestic work, textiles and apparel, light manufacturing, and the lower-wage “nurturing” professions (nursing and teaching). 

On the assumption that women workers were in an unfortunate interlude between dependence on father and dependence on a husband, women’s earnings were calibrated as “pin money” rather “family wages.”21 And, for many of the same reasons, the institutions and policies that helped to build and sustain earnings for men (the minimum wage, the labor movement), were less accessible to, or less likely to cover, women.22

Although considerable progress has been made—in legal status, in patterns of labor force participation, and in the desegregation of occupations—gender inequality remains stark. The burdens and constraints of family life (caring for children, and elderly parents) are still borne largely by women. Especially in the absence of meaningful child care supports or paid family leave, this comes at a direct cost to earnings and careers. In 2011, the median annual income for women working full time was 23 percent less than that of their male counterparts. Women make up about half of the labor force—but much higher shares of minimum-wage, and low-wage workers.23  

By any measure, women’s wages [see FIG below, toggle between men and women] are persistently lower than those of men—despite higher educational attainment and achievement. This gap is narrowing, but it is narrowing slowly. Some of this is progress—women are better qualified (more education, more experience) and employment discrimination (glass ceilings, occupational bans) is less prevalent. But some of this reflects background trends in the wage structure, in which the gender gap is narrowed not by women’s gains, but by men’s losses.

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