The "wage gap" between men and women – often said to be the equivalent of women earning 77 cents for each dollar a man earns – turns out to be a little more complicated, according to figures from the Labor Department. In terms of median weekly earnings for full-time workers in 2009, women aged 45 to 55 fared the worst, earning only 73.6 percent of equivalent men’s earnings.
For women aged 25-34, on the other hand, the gap was much smaller, at 88.7 percent of their male peers’ earnings, and women aged 20-24 had the best situation of any female demographic, pulling in 92.9 percent of the earnings of men in their age group.
While the pay gap will remain galling for women (and men) young and old, the Labor Department figures suggest that improvement may be on the way. A precise explanation is hard to come by – the data is not controlled for precise number of hours worked or different types of jobs, both of which can affect the figures.
Another set of figures from the same report found that women at each level of educational accomplishment earn more than women with the same education from previous generations.
In the end, the remaining pay gap – whether 9 cents for the 20-24 group or 26 cents for the 45-55 group – is probably related to a number of complicated factors interacting in unpredictable ways.
Women still bear the bulk of the labor involved in raising children, and many women have said that young children – or even the expectation that they will bear children – means they are discriminated against for management-track positions. Since non-management positions tend to peak in pay earlier than corporate-level jobs, women may be missing out on higher earnings later in life.
On the other hand, some studies have shown that men act more forcefully when negotiating their salaries, and that women are sometimes perceived as being pushy or bossy when they try to bargain for a raise. A difference in negotiating styles and perceptions could lead to smaller pay raises over a lifetime, increasing the aggregate gap as the years go by.
Still, for young women, the data should represent a bit of welcome news – especially since the current economic climate continues to somewhat favor women, with unemployment and out-sourcing hitting male-dominated industries first and hardest.