The talk about a Republican war on women, though diminished somewhat by Rick Santorum's exit from the presidential nominee race, may be widely seen as a contrived political wedge issue. But that's hardly the case. It's not just in the GOP focus on restrictions of women's personal reproductive rights that women suffer. There is also a real and abiding pay gap that keeps women down.
A new report by the American Association of University Women confirms that the premise of the Equal Pay Act signed into law nearly 50 years ago remains a promise, and not a reality.
In 1970, women's median annual earnings in full-time, year-around jobs were just 59 percent of the median annual earnings for men in full-time, year-around jobs. Forty years later, in 2010, the pay gap for women had moved to 77 percent of men's earnings -- some progress, but not nearly enough. The median annual earnings for men were $47,715 versus $36,931 for women.
The actual gender gap in annual average weekly median pay, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, is somewhat less, likely because the figures for annual pay include the earnings of ultra-wealthy Americans, who are mainly white males. Hence the Labor Department reports that the gender gap for weekly payrolls puts women earning 18 percent less than men in 2011. Regardless, the gender gap in pay still leaves women earning significantly less than men.
Pay disparity is not uniform across the states, to be sure. The 2010 figures, which remain very close to current wages due to wage stagnation since the 2007 recession, show women in Tennessee earning 77 percent of men's median wages ($31,854 vs. $41,414 for men). Women in Georgia earned 80 percent of what men earned, or $34,709 vs. $43,344 for men.
The disparity defies knee-jerk stereotypes of women simply choosing jobs that paid less. The AAUW, for example, found in a 2007 report that male and female college graduates showed the typical gender gaps one year after graduation, and the same in 10-years after graduation. The latter showed women earning just 69 percent of what their college graduate male counterparts earned 10 years after graduation.
Even "after accounting for college major, occupation, industry, sector, hours worked, workplace flexibility, experience, educational attainment, enrollment status, GPA, institution selectivity, age, race/ethnicity, region, marital status, and number of children, a 5 percent difference in the earnings of male and female college graduates one year after graduation was still unexplained," the AAUW report said, and the pay gap increased to 12 percent after 10 years.
Part of the general gender gap may be attributed to the "motherhood penalty" for women who return to work after stages of child rearing, but that's not a complete answer for the gap. It persists across race, ethnicity, skill level and age, in virtually all types of jobs and professions.
Eliminating pay inequity, it seems, will require employers to scrutinize their pay standards for same-level jobs, and women to improve their negotiating skills and to insist on fair pay. It also will require Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, and hold employers accountable for inequitable pay schedules.