No matter what statistic you use, the gender pay gap is a fact of life in modern America. Despite three waves of feminism and myriad laws for at least half a century banning pay discrimination, the gap persists. These days the issue is surfacing in the presidential race, and Democratic White House hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley have both made a point of calling for long-overdue pay equity for women.
But today there is one group in which men and women make nearly equal earnings: young college graduates. According to a new analysis by the New York Federal Reserve, among recent college graduates aged 22 to 27, women make about 97 cents on the dollar compared to men with the same college major and profession.
In fact, in several fields, women not only match men, but significantly out-earn them. The study found that women make more than men in 29 of the 73 majors studied. In the chart below based on data compiled by the New York Fed from the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Community Survey, you can see some of the majors in which which young women made more than their male counterparts:
The wage premium for women (or how much higher their pay is than men) occurs in a wide array of majors, ranging from social services to aerospace engineering to philosophy. The wage premium could be the result of various kinds of gendered perceptions of work. In the case of therapy and social work, fields that are dominated by women, employers may favor women because they're more used to dealing with female applicants, or because they believe them to be more "naturally" adept at a job requiring a great deal of emotional labor and sensitivity. In male-dominated fields like engineering, the female wage premium could very well be an attempt by employers to correct the gender imbalance in their line of work. Higher pay for women could be a nudge to attract more female talent and encourage women to stay once they've obtained a job.
That being said, there are plenty of fields in which young male college graduates make far more than their female counterparts. The New York Fed's analysis shows that in majors relating to agriculture, various sciences and business, men have a significant wage premium over women. In agriculture, that difference amounts to a remarkable 21% more pay for men:
Ultimately, the differences even out so that young women with at least a bachelor's degree lag behind men only by 3% when everything is accounted for.
But the near-fairness doesn't last: The New York Fed's analysis shows that by the time college graduates reach mid-career — when they're professionals between the ages of 45 to 55 — the pay gap widens dramatically. Men in this group earn 15% more than women, five times the wage premium that men hold early in their career. More surprisingly, that wage premium is in every single major, including the ones in which women originally held a significant earnings advantage. Male social services majors go from earning 16% less than women to 10% more than them; male aerospace engineers who lagged behind their female counterparts eventually hold a 13% lead by mid-career.
Why is this happening? The narrowness of the gender pay gap among young college graduates in the New York Fed's study is striking, but the fact that it fades isn't new to us.
"To some extent, these economists are pointing out something that's been true for a really long time, which is that the pay gap really widens in later parts of the earnings spectrum — during the prime earnings years," Catherine Hill, research director at the American Association of University Women, told Mic.
For entry-level jobs, pay is standardized, and reflects the estimated value of the job more than the person. But as someone's career advances, they're constantly subject to personal judgment by their supervisors. Employers make decisions about additional opportunities, promotions and training for their workers. Every one of these moments represent junctures in which perception of competence lifts some employees more swiftly than others. The disparity between higher-paid workers and lower-paid workers can snowball over time, as better-paid workers are interpreted as precocious and worse-paid ones are deemed unremarkable. This course of events almost always favors men.
A significant part of it has to with differences between how men and women differ in relation to child-bearing and raising. Women tend to leave their jobs because of their children at much higher rates and for much longer than men, and those interruptions from work mean they fall behind on wages. Even when they return to the workforce, women's disproportionate familial responsibilities can limit their ability to work long hours. Once they fall behind on wages, they can't catch up.
But there's good reason to think discrimination plays a role as well.
"There may be many women who are not mothers who are being discriminated against because people think they might become mothers," said Hill, leading companies not to invest in them the way they do with men. Sexism in the workplace can manifest in all kinds of different ways, and won't necessarily take the form of old-school male chauvinism. Women's lower wages can be a product of implicit bias (unconscious beliefs) or benevolent sexism.
"A boss who is well-meaning thinks, 'I don't want to give [a soon-to-be or new mother] a really hard assignment,'" Hill said. "Well, that's not necessarily helping her in the long run."
What is to be done? Aside from the slow cultural work of building a society that views men and women as true social equals, there's also a significant policy dimension. Countries like Sweden and Germany have instituted robust gender-neutral paid parental leave plans that not only require employers to let men take off work as easily as women, but offer attractive incentives for both parents to do so. Families in which both parents take leave are allowed more total time off than families in which only one parent takes leave.
This encourages households to view men as important to taking responsibility in family care, and creates a workplace environment in which they find it easier to spend more time with their families without being written off as uncommitted. Women are no longer branded as uniquely likely to disappear from the office at some point in the middle of their career. Ultimately, the policy breeds more options for families. And more choices mean a much better chance at fairness.