The Multinational Monitor

May 2003 - VOLUME 24 - NUMBER 5

Closing the Gap Amidst
Ongoing Discrimination
Women and Economic Disparities

An Interview with Heidi Hartmann

Heidi Hartmann is the founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women's Policy Research, which conducts women-centered, policy-oriented research. She is the author of numerous reports and publications on the impacts of healthcare, wage and family leave policy on women's economic status and well-being, among many other topics. She is the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship award.

If we look at women and men who work full time, year round, women earn only 77 percent of what men earn.

Multinational Monitor: To what extent is poverty in the United States gender based?
Heidi Hartmann:
In general, women are disproportionately poor, but the difference is not as big as you might think. There are significant disparities in two cases.

Single women-headed households are disproportionately poor as compared to two-parent families or even single-dad families. Married couples with children in the United States are 6.4 percent poor. Single women with children are 35.7 percent poor. That’s a super disparity. But single-mom families are only about 20 percent of all families with children.

Most mothers live in married couple families, and there is typically a higher-earning man. Women earn less than men, and the single-earning mom doesn’t have a higher-earner to share income with.

The disparity among all women over 65 and all men over 65 is also substantial. Women live longer than men, and the older you are, the more likely you are to live alone. The disparity among older men and women is largely a difference between marital poverty rates and single poverty rates. But even if we look at the poverty rate for single women and single men, the poverty rate is almost twice as high for older women as it is for older single men.

The disparities among older people has something to do with your household living arrangement, but also with income differences. Women’s social security income is lower than men’s, their pensions are less than men’s, and women are much less likely to have a pension at all.

MM: How do men’s and women’s earnings compare?
There remains a big difference, even today. If we look at women and men who work full time, year round, (more than 35 hours a week, for more than 50 weeks a year), for the year 2001, the last full year for which we have the annual earnings data available, women earn only 77 percent of what men earn.

MM: How much earnings disparity is there within the category of women?
It is still less than between the top and bottom for men, but it is growing. In the past, when fewer women had higher education, the occupations open to them were fewer. They would mostly be secretaries or domestic servants or cashiers. Now a woman can be a banker or lawyer. So it is almost a sign of progress that the disparity among women is growing, because it indicates that women are able to get into the higher salary ranges.

MM: How do disparities with race overlay with disparities by gender?
Looking at the earnings of full-time men and women, what you’ll generally see is the earnings of minority males and all females are in the same range — 70 to 80 percent of what white men earn. The only group really ahead in median earnings for full-time year-round work is white men. The others will tend to be clustered in a narrow band between 70 and 80 percent. Women of color will earn near the bottom of that range. Men of color and white women will be closer together near the top of that range.

MM: Are the earnings disparities between men and women due to discrimination?
Basically, yes, some of the disparities certainly are. There were two fairly comprehensive literature reviews produced in the last five years, one of them by the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton years, on this issue. They concluded that about a third of the gross wage gap — for example, the 23 percent that exists as of 2001 — is not explainable by other factors that should explain wages, and is probably due to discrimination.

Some of the disparity is due to experience differences, differences economists regard as legitimate in accounting for wage differentials since they constitute workers’ “human capital.” Despite the tremendous increase in women working, women and men still have different amounts of accumulated labor market experience. Educational attainment for women and men in the labor market now is about equal, though they still do have somewhat different majors, with more men in science, and more women in social work, for example. According to the Council for Economic Advisers, about one-third of the gross wage gap is accounted for by these differences in skill and experience.

Some of the disparity is due to different occupational and industry distributions. We don’t know how much of that is choice, and how much of that is discrimination. Do women look and see that most nurses are women and say, “I want to be a nurse?” Is that a free choice? Or if it happened that they saw just as many engineers to be women, would they say, “I’d like to be an engineer?” It is hard to know whether those kinds of institutional and cultural patterns really represent free choice.

MM: So the portion of earnings disparity attributed to discrimination does not include job segmentation?
In the Council of Economic Advisers report, those differences in occupation and industry are not counted as discrimination — they reported that those differences between women and men along with gender differences in unionization accounted for about 28 percent of the gross wage gap. About one-third remains unexplained.

MM: How is wage discrimination manifested in real workplaces?
The Equal Pay Act, saying you cannot pay a man and a woman differently for the same job, has been on the books since 1963. But every day there are complaints filed at the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] saying, “We were in the same job at the same workplace, and he got paid more than I do.” Most people would like to believe that women now receive equal pay for the same job, but I don’t think that is quite true.

The second major way is promotion and assignment. When you are brought in and hired, are you brought in to a job that is stereotypically female or one that is stereotypically male, or an integrated one? They tend to have different wages. Jobs that are predominantly female tend to pay less. In a big corporation, the human resources office has a lot of discretion as to where to assign you. When you look at a large corporation, you will typically see different jobs for different groups. Front office workers will often be white women. Back office workers will often be women of color. The blue collar jobs, which often pay better, tend to be male.

These workers may all be high school graduates with similar skills, and they could have been placed anywhere. Yet they do seem to get placed in the different jobs that are stereotypically held by different groups and have different wage rates.

Another way is through promotion possibilities. You could be in an integrated work occupation, but find that women and men are promoted at different rates.

Yet another way is the comparable worth, or pay equity, issue. An entire occupation may have a lower pay rate simply because women or minorities do them, not because of the skill level in the job.

MM: How do different burdens for childcare and household work affect the relative economic status of men and women?
Again, there is a lot of debate about that. It seems clear that women spend more time out of the labor market because of family responsibilities, and that will affect their earnings, because it gives them less labor market experience. Fewer years of experience in general means lower pay.

Other things are more debatable: Does it mean that women are less good workers, that they are more distracted and less productive? Because women have this disproportionate responsibility, do they want to be closer to home and spend less travel time, so they have fewer options and wind up with lower paying jobs?

Another way that it can affect them is the employer thinks: “Oh, this is a young woman, she is going to have a child, therefore, she won’t stick with me, therefore, I better not give her any training or promote her.” The stereotypes based on women’s usual family responsibilities are also an important source of discrimination against women.

In fact, when you compare women and men on the same job with the same job tenure, women are not more likely to leave, and they don’t take more time off for illness. For the same level of job and the same seniority, women and men tend to be very similar in their behavior on the job. But this stereotype is strong: “Oh, a woman, she’ll quit.”

One thing I’m concerned about is the idea that because you have family responsibilities, you are doomed to not do as well on the job, or you’ll never get ahead — I think that is not true. Many men and women who take their family responsibilities seriously are very successful at work, and do get promoted and do get raises.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with this topic, because I think people almost believe there is nothing a woman can do about this. There are things that people can do to make this better, not the least of which is sharing household tasks better and sharing child-rearing responsibilities between men and women better. It helps also to be in a union, it helps to be in a workplace that does pay people fairly, it helps to speak up and say you want more money.

MM: The trend is for the earnings disparity between women and men to be closing. Why is that taking place?
A lot of it is because of women’s educational achievement and the opening of new possibilities for women. Not that many years ago, women simply were not admitted to medical, law or business schools, for example. There definitely are new educational opportunities, and women are taking advantage of that, and there are employment opportunities in those areas that they have training for.

An important part of the progress in equal opportunity is attributable to our laws. Title IX affects higher education and it requires colleges and universities to make all of their programs equally available to men and women. We think of Title IX as relating to sports, but it also helped to open programs in law, medicine, science, engineering, so on.

Along with the laws and those new opportunities, attitudes and culture are changing. Women are working more, and I think a lot of that is voluntary in the sense that women are saying, “I am going to be working all of my life, I’m going to organize my life so that I can make sure that I do have an income. I’m going to train, get an education. I’m going to plan to work.” Women are dropping out of the workforce much less often when they have children, working more consistently through the lifecycle than they used to. A lot of it is women choosing to become more economically independent.

Some of it also is basic economics. If women’s wages are rising relative to men’s, that is a signal to go into the market. The price signal is: work more.

MM: In broad outlines, what are a handful of your preferred policy prescriptions to close the earnings disparity between men and women?
There are so many women still at the bottom of the labor market, so many more women who work part time, if we could have a really decent minimum wage, it would help women disproportionately. If we could have some kind of equity law, that part-time workers have to receive the same hourly wage and the same benefits or access to benefits as full-time workers, those measures would go a long way to helping women.

I think stronger enforcement of equal employment opportunity laws is also important. We are spending much less per capita enforcing those laws than we did when they got on the books. The population has grown, the workforce has grown, and we haven’t even restored the real dollars we had in those programs before 1980.

We need improvements in family friendly benefits. Child care should be made pretty much universally available. It should be very publicly subsidized, maybe as much as public schools are subsidized, so that the child care barrier — the restriction of not being able to find child care, or having to earn enough to be able to pay for quality child care — would not restrict women from working.

There are dozens of others. Particularly important would be increased unionization. We’ve done a study that shows unions tend to help all women and minority males more than white males, on average. It brings up their wages more. Again, I think that is because unions are based on equal treatment. More bureaucratic workplaces, like public sector or unionized workplaces, will be workplaces where typically there will be a smaller wage gap.


There are so many women still at the bottom of the labor market, if we could have a really decent minimum wage, it would help women disproportionately.

Most people would like to believe that women now receive equal pay for the same job, because of internal labor market rules and procedures requiring equal treatment, but I don't think that is quite true.