Discrimination, the careers women choose, and the burdens of motherhood could all play a role, says a Cornell economist.
At last night's presidential debate, audience member Katherine Fenton got up and asked how the candidates planned to fix the fact that women make "only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn." It's a familiar stat that, as some conservatives argued today, is also a bit misleading. When you compare men and women who work similar hours in similar jobs, the gap shrinks significantly.
But it doesn't disappear. To get a sense of why women today are still paid less than men, and how much of the difference we can actually blame on discrimination, I spoke with Francine Blau, an award winning labor economist at Cornell who has published widely on gender and the workplace. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me the story of how the male-female pay gap has changed over the past few decades.
Way back in the 1950s, women earned around 60 percent on average of what men earned when working year-round full time. And it stayed right around at that level until about 1980. Then, particularly in the decade of the 80s, there was really considerable progress in narrowing the gender pay gap. Since then, there's been further progress, but it's been a little bit more fitful, a little less consistent. So in 1980, that figure was 60 percent. In 1990 it was 72 percent. In 10 years, that was quite a change. In 2000, it was 73 percent. And now it's about 77 percent. It bounces around year to year.