Gender Pay Gap Persists: New Female Grads Earn $7,600 Less Than Men, Report Finds

gender pay gap

The gender pay gap is an enduring fact of American life. Many say that's due to the enduring responsibilities of motherhood, which lead to women taking more time off than men to care for the kids. But according to a new report from the American Association of University Women, just a year out of college, the average woman already makes $7,600 less a year than her average male peer. Among graduates from private universities, the difference swells to a staggering $12,600.

One young woman, Katherine Fenton, directly asked Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the second debate about what their plans were to fix the pay gap. The liberal wings of the internet quickly seized on Romney's response about "binders full of women," while the conservative wings went straight for Fenton herself, publicizing jokes about sex and drinking she wrote on her Twitter account and dubbing her a "party girl" who "hates cops." It seems the pay gap remains enough of a controversial topic that a woman who dared to ask the candidates about it gets served a good helping of harassment.

The AAUW report finds that most of the wage difference between men and women isn't to do with the "gender wage gap" in the technical sense: the difference in earnings between a man and a woman working the exact same job for the exact same hours. But even a freshly graduated woman with an identical life, major and job to a man will earn a few thousand dollars less, either because she failed to negotiate as toughly, or because discrimination robbed her of fair pay.

The "wage gap," though, is the product of this five-piece puzzle:
  • Women pick majors with less promise of fat paychecks.
  • Even with the same major, women end up working in less-well-paying fields.
  • Even in the same field, women choose -- or are pigeonholed into -- less-well-paying jobs.
  • Women work a couple of hours less.
  • Even in the same job, with the same hours, women are simply paid less money.

More:NBA Official Sues, Alleging Sex Discrimination

The report's findings are a sobering response to the recent euphoria about female advancement. Women now make up half the workforce and a majority of college students. They earn higher grades than their male classmates, and are more career-driven, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Liza Mundy calls women "The Richer Sex" and Hanna Rosin has declared "The End of Men," announcing a new economic order in which women will become the breadwinners in most American families.

But Rosin doesn't believe the wage difference means women aren't on the rise. In fact, women's economic prospects are better than men's, she told AOL Jobs, precisely because they're going into professions that are growing fast, such as nursing -- but these professions tend to pay less.

Women are also more likely to seek out work that permits greater flexibility and control over their own time. For example, men are far more likely to work in the private sector, while women dominate the nonprofit world. And just looking at social science graduates, 26 percent of men go into business or management, the report finds, compared to 11 percent of women. The female social studies student is more likely to choose a job in social services, health care and teaching.

More:Obama vs. Romney: Who Is Better For Women?

The problem isn't that women are avoiding jobs with more punishing schedules, Rosin claims. The problem is that "we penalize women too heavily for making family friendly work choices," she wrote over email. Rosin doesn't believe we should close the wage difference by having women work more, "but by having everyone work less and be more lenient."

Women have another reason to want this kind of world; according to the report, the more a woman works, the greater the wage difference becomes (women who work 50 hours a week earn $8,500 less than men who work the same amount). But it's a vision that would require a seismic cultural shift, and even then the wage difference wouldn't vanish.

Women don't just choose lower-paying jobs; the report suggests that companies may in fact relegate women to lower-paying positions that are considered more "feminine" -- such as administrative assistant rather than assistant manager, or at the cash register rather than on the sales floor. (In sales occupations, women earn 77 percent of what men do a year after graduation).

In 1992, a judge in fact found that the supermarket chain Lucky's discriminated against its female employees by routinely placing them in lower-paying positions, which the managers assumed the women preferred.

The AAUW report echos many past studies on gender and pay: Women earn way less, in every field, for lots of different reasons. According to a 2010 report from Catalyst, an organization that studies female advancement in business, women earned $4,600 less in their first job after business school than their male classmates, and this gap only widens over time.

More:The Real Reason Why Women Still Earn Less Than Men?

Just a year out from college, according to the report, the gap is even worse. The average 22-year-old female graduate, who works until she's 65, will earn $327,000 less over her lifetime than the average guy who graduated the same year, and that's if the gap didn't grow at all over time, which it does.

To counteract this, the AAUW recommends:
  • Employers publish salary ranges for each job title, giving employees a better idea of whether they're being paid fairly. (The wage gap is much less in the public sector, where pay is much more transparent).
  • Government offer more protections, like the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was blocked by Republicans in Congress earlier this year.
  • Female grads think more about their choice of major, pick a first job that pays well, ideally a union gig, and negotiate hard to ensure they get what they're worth.

Unlike the AAUW, Rosin doesn't think women should try to imitate men, however. She thinks men should imitate women, and look for more more flexible jobs. That way, families wouldn't need a lower-paid mom taking more time off, supported by a better-paid husband.

What do you think? How do you think women and men should close the gender pay gap?

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