This year, the annual State of the Union hosted by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University was dedicated to gender inequality. Researchers at the conference discussed the worrying trajectory of women's social and economic advancement over the past fifty years: fast progress until the 1990s and a slowing change thereafter [Marianne Cooper and Shelley J. Corell, on Policy]. The conference covered topics ranging from the gender earnings gap, to sexual harassment in the workplace, to early childhood education. Here, we summarize some of the main findings of the research presented.
the earnings gap
A typical measure of the gender wage gap is the ratio of female median wages to male median wages. The figure below demonstrates that the gap in median earnings shrunk significantly in the 1970-80s but has only fallen slightly since 1990, now hovering around 81 percent [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2017. “Earnings and Wages: Gender Wage Gap”]. Emmanuel Saez presented a more comprehensive measure of the gender wage gap that shows an even larger difference between male and female earnings [Piketty, Saez and Zucman, 2018]. Unlike the median wage gap, the gap measured by Saez and his coauthors takes into account people who are not employed or self-employment, and includes earnings and fringe benefits, such as pension contributions and health benefits. Under this full accounting, women earn as little as 57% of men's earnings.
Occupational segregation is another aspect of gender inequality in the labor market and one of the causes of the gender earnings gap. Dafna Gelbsiger of Facebook explained that one facet of this is ''vertical segregation,'' the phenomenon in which women work disproportionately more in positions with lower pay, lower chances for promotion and less authority than men. As the percentage of women in an occupation increases, Gelbsiger argued, the median wages of that occupation decrease. Only 20% of women in the US work in occupations where women's median hourly wage is at least 95% of men's median hourly wage; and only 5% of women work in occupations where the women's mean hourly wage is at least 95% of men's mean hourly wage [Weeden, Newhart, Gelbgiser, State of the Union 2018, "Occupational Segregation"].
Research presented by Adina Sterling of Stanford University suggests that social ties also play into the gender earnings and employment gap. While women have larger networks than men, they on average have significantly less co-workers in their network than men. This is important, Sterling asserted, because work-related relationships increase the likelihood of finding a job and succeeding in one's career.
Women more frequently live in poverty or in deep poverty than do men, according to research presented by Luke Shaefer of University of Michigan. Shaefer presented the figure below showing that while there was a small narrowing of the gap between the number of women and men in poverty during the 1990s, there is no evidence of a change since then. As a consequence, women are also more likely to use the social safety net than men - although qualitative evidence presented by Linda Burton of Duke University suggests that part of this difference is due to gender norms that stigmatize safety net use among men.
Differences in education can potentially affect the occupation and earnings that both sexes can generate. Sean Reardon of Stanford University presented research showing that while women in the US are graduating from college at higher rates than men, they are still underrepresented in STEM majors, receiving only 35% of STEM bachelor degrees in 2016. If a degree in STEM is more highly valued in the labor market, the under-representation of women in STEM majors could explain part of the gender earnings gap.
Reardon presented evidence that male students do not consistently outperform female students in mathematics and that in reading female students consistently outperform male students throughout school, by one-half to four-fifths of a grade-level [fig. 1, page 11, Pathways : State of the Union 2018]. The figure below shows that on average, males have a negligible lead in math in fourth grade, which disappears by eighth grade. Once they reach high school, however, there is a shift and boys outperform girls in math in the US, by approximately one-third of a grade level in 2012. Reardon also cited research in psychology that finds little evidence of innate differences between men and women in math or science [“Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science?: A Critical Review.” American Psychologist 60(9), 950–958]. Surprisingly, Reardon’s work revealed that the math gap in high-school is wider in wealthier communities, though an explanation for this fact is not known.
sexual assault and harassment
Amy Blackstone of University of Maine discussed the economic relevance of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. To begin, Blackstone cited survey evidence showing that when asked about particular behaviors, up to 85% percent of women report behaviors such as unwanted touching, leering, and offensive sexual joking at work [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 2016. “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace”]. Counter to the popular belief that powerful men prey on less powerful women, evidence suggests that women in supervisory roles are significantly more likely than other women to be sexually harassed [Uggen, C. and Blackstone, A. 2004. “Sexual Harassment as a Gendered Expression of Power.” American Sociological Review]. Blackstone highlighted evidence that sexual harassment pushes women to change their jobs and reduce their working hours which can lead to financial stress and hampered career paths.
It is important to consider the variety of types of harassment that all people may encounter. Sexual harassment varies by ethnicity, race, age and gender expression. Individuals identifying as LGBTQ report elevated rates of sexual harassment relative to the general population. Women of color face harassment and legal barriers that are distinct in nature and require additional attention [Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1992. “Race, Gender, and Sexual Harassment.” Southern California Law Review 65, 1467–1476.].
While there is still much to do, a common theme throughout the conference was that in order to achieve equity, our society's ingrained beliefs about gender roles and identities must adjust to more flexible and fluid notions of sex and gender. Sociologists Aliya Saperstein and David S. Pedulla spoke of the non-binary gender spectrum and intersectionality with race and ethnicity as key components in understanding gender equity. These topics present an opportunity for economists to learn more about how people's sex and gender identification may impact their well-being, incentives, and opportunities in life.
In our own profession, many people are working to promote diversity and equality in the field. For example, the most recent issue of the CSWEP Newsletter focuses on "Dealing with Sexual Harassment," a crucial topic that has not been discussed widely in the profession. However, our field still has far to come and much to learn in order to achieve gender equality in our own profession and to effectively contribute to research on gender equality in the broader US.
Author: Ada Gonzalez-Torres