Single, childless women outearn men in most cities, with a caveat

A new study that finds young women are outearning men is pinging around the internet. The pay of young, single, and childless women between age 22 and 30, it reports, has “caught up and [is] now exceeding men in most of America’s cities.” These women–a rather narrow demographic–earn about 8% more, on average, than their male peers, according to Reach Advisors, a consumer research company that announced the findings. In some cities the gap is even larger. In Atlanta, for example, women earn 21% more than men on average.

Given that women are “outlearning” their male peers, this should come as no surprise. As  Maria Cancian (Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison) and Deborah Reed (Mathematica), two leading experts on women and work, explained in an email, “It’s been more than a decade since young women outpaced young men in college graduation rates. Now we are seeing the results of that as the labor market continues to place high rewards on education.”

Indeed, in a knowledge economy such as ours, education pays. A Network brief documents the earnings gains from higher education here.

However, there are some nuances to the findings.  James Chung, president of the Reach Advisors, was kind enough to fill me in on the back story. The gender gap, he says, is evident in three contexts. Women earn more in cities with an abundance of  knowledge-based jobs, which are magnets for the college-educated; where minorities are a majority share of the total population; and in areas with a decimated manufacturing base, which makes it harder for men with less education to earn a decent wage.

In contrast, in areas with one dominant industry, as in some small towns, or in areas with male-dominated industries, men still outearn women. So areas in Louisiana dependent on oil rigs, or in places like Bellevue, Washington, home of Microsoft, men’s earnings are higher than women’s. However, in cities or towns heavy on blue-collar work, both men and women lost ground on wages, although men lost more ground. Here’s a chart for male-female earnings ratios by metro area.

This brings up another possibility in explaining part of the gender gap: Perhaps the significant decline in the earnings of men with lower skills and less education has been far greater than the gains of women, thus widening the gap–in a dispiriting hollowing out of the middle.

One also wonders how permanent the trend is. After all, only women who are in their 20s, still single and childless, are outearning men. This is a very small slice of the labor force.

“It will be interesting to see what happens over the next decade,” Cancian and Reed emailed. “Women in their thirties and forties tend to earn less than men, in large part because women are more likely to take time off to raise children and to take lower-paying, more flexible career paths for family reasons.

“Men still out-earn women with similar levels of education. This means that in couples with two college-educated parents, for example, it will still generally cost the family less if mothers are the ones to take time off.”

But, who knows what the future will bring. As the two also note, with young women now more educated and earning more than young men, big changes in work and family my be afoot.

To read more, see coverage in Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal, and Salon.

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