Women's Pay: Lagging From the Start

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If you heard a lot of fuming or sighing around the water cooler on Monday, it's because word is spreading about new data that shows women are already earning less than men before the ink on their college diplomas has dried. The study, which looked at more than 10,000 people who received bachelor's degrees in 1999-2000, found that just one year after graduation, women who are working full time earn only 80% as much as their male counterparts do. True, female students tend to major in fields associated with lower earnings, such as education and health professions, which accounts for part of the wage gap. But even among co-eds who majored in the same subject in college, men are still earning more money than their female counterparts just 12 months out of the college gate.

The study, which was conducted by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, also found that the salary gap gets considerably wider over time, with women earning 69% of what men earn 10 years after graduation. But the one-year data is particularly telling, since new graduates are not likely to have had children yet and since they are entering the work force without significant prior experience than can affect starting salaries.

The recent graduate numbers includes an apples-to-apples comparison of full-time workers who majored in the same subject, and the discrepancies are jarring. One year after graduation, female business majors are earning 81% of what male business majors earn. Among biology majors, women get paid only 75% as much as men. Even in traditionally male-dominated fields, in which women are theoretically sought after for diversity's sake, women still earn less than men. One year after graduation, female engineers make 95% of what male engineering majors do, and women who majored in math earn only 76% of what their male counterparts earn.

Part of the gap may be explained by the number of hours women work compared with men. But after controlling for all the factors known to affect wages — including occupation and parenthood — the study found that college-educated women still earn about 5% less than college-educated men one year after graduation and 12% 10 years after graduation. This gap, the study's authors go on to say, "remains unexplained and may be attributed to discrimination."

One possible explanation offered by the study: "Women expect less and negotiate less pay for themselves than do men." Linda Babcock agrees. An economics professor at Carnegie Mellon and co-author of Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, she points to a host of cultural factors that influence women's expectations and actions practically from the day they are born. As the founder of Carnegie Mellon's PROGRESS (Program for Research & Outreach on Gender Equity in Society), Babcock is developing ways to teach negotiation skills to women and girls. One such tool is the Girls Scouts' new negotiation badge, launched last fall, which girls can earn after completing a seminar on negotiation skills.

"You have to start young," Babcock says. But for college girls and beyond, raising expectations may begin with shedding light on just how much women are getting shafted.