[Paleopsych] NYT: Women Are Gaining Ground on the Wage Front

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Women Are Gaining Ground on the Wage Front
NYT December 31, 2004

Ever since the 2001 recession sent the economy into a
prolonged period of weak hiring, hundreds of thousands of
men and women have gone through some variation of Tom and
Marie DeSisto's experience.

Concerned that he might be laid off as Verizon cut staff,
Mr. DeSisto, 54, accepted an early retirement package,
giving up a manager's salary of more than $100,000 a year.
Now he earns half that as a high school math teacher in
Waltham, Mass., while Mrs. DeSisto, 50, brings home $63,000
as the supervisor of nurses in the same school district.

In contrast to her husband's downsized pay, Mrs. DeSisto's
salary has risen 75 percent over the last five years as she
moved from a nursing job in Framingham, another Boston
suburb, to responsibility as supervisor for a growing staff
of school nurses in Waltham.

That pattern of improving employment prospects and rising
wages for women - while many men stood still or got hurt -
has done as much if not more than class-action lawsuits,
quotas and equal opportunity laws to narrow the gap between
men's and women's pay.

Working women now earn just over 80 percent of what men do,
up from 62 percent 25 years ago, according to the Bureau of
Labor Statistics. It turns out that almost half of that gap
closed during two comparatively short periods of relatively
hard times, totaling about six years. Those periods
correspond with the recessions and cutbacks in the work
force that marked the opening years of the last decade and
the current one.

The gains for women have stuck. As the economy improved in
the second half of the 1990's, women did not continue to
move ahead, but they held their own, chiefly because so
many men, like Mr. DeSisto, failed to get back into the
work force at the same pay levels as before.

"Everyone's image of how they wanted to close the gender
gap was for women to catch up with men in pay, without men
going backward," said Rebecca M. Blank, dean of the
University of Michigan's School of Public Policy. "Now it
is clear that for substantial groups of people in the labor
market, that is not how it is closing."

The dynamics reflect profound shifts in the economy. Men
are more vulnerable than women to layoffs, mainly because
they predominate in industries that are walloped in
downturns, particularly manufacturing. Then, too, the large
influx of nonworking women into low-wage jobs in the
1990's, caused in part by the overhaul of welfare,
depressed the median wage of women as a whole. That influx
has stopped, and the median wage has responded by rising.

College-educated women, having entered the labor force in
large numbers for nearly 30 years, are showing up
everywhere now, which gives employers the opportunity to
fill more executive, administrative and professional jobs
with well-trained and hardworking women who are paid well,
but often not as well as men in those jobs.

Still, as women take these upper-end jobs in growing
numbers, the pay level of women as a whole is pulled up.
Observing this phenomenon, Francine Blau, a labor economist
at Cornell University, declares that the wage gap is
closing mainly because of "the rising educational
attainment of women who work full time."

That may be an important ingredient, but wage data
collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the
closing of the gap in pay between men and women accelerated
in the so-called jobless recoveries, when employers cut
staff or froze hiring during recessions and continued to do
so into the ensuing economic upswings.

Americans have experienced two jobless recoveries since
World War II. The second may still be in progress, although
recent evidence suggests it could finally be yielding to an
improving job market. Before the first, in the early
1990's, recessions invariably ended in hiring surges that
benefited both men and women and in roughly equal fashion.

For some specialists, like Betty Spence, president of the
National Association of Female Executives, the fact that
women still earn lower pay offers an opportunity to
employers bent on cutting labor costs. "Corporations tend
to lop off the highly paid guy at the top," she said, "and
replace him with a woman who is just as competent and is
willing to work just as hard for less pay."

For others, like Barbara R. Bergmann, a labor economist at
American University in Washington, the spectacle of women
gaining ground in harder times is vivid evidence that most
occupations are still largely segregated by sex and that
men's occupations, while often higher paying, are also more
vulnerable to business cycles.

Men, for example, still hold most of the best-paying jobs
in manufacturing, which has been particularly hard hit in
recent years. Women, by contrast, are ensconced in
white-collar occupations that tend to ride out job cuts
almost untouched. These include education, health care and
civil service employment.

Ms. Bergmann recognizes that this backdoor route to wage
equality may not be the most desirable path. "We would
prefer that pay converge in a strong economy," she said,
"but however it happens, we should be happy it is

Men who work full time still earn nearly 20 percent more
than women who do. The score is $693 in median weekly pay,
adjusted for inflation, to $560 for women, the Bureau of
Labor Statistics reports. The median means that half of the
workers in each sex earn more and half earn less.

The current $133 weekly gap has narrowed from $260 in 1979.
But $62 of that progress, or 47 percent, has been
compressed into the two periods of stepped-up labor
cost-cutting that started with the 1990-1991 and the 2001

In the latest episode, total employment has not yet risen
back to its prerecession level. The economy is reviving,
but hiring has not improved as much. Employers appear to be
still engaging in what David H. Autor, an economist at
Harvard University, calls "the cleansing effects of hard

Men's pay during these cleansings has stagnated or dropped,
while women's pay has continued to rise, although more
slowly than in good times. Jared Bernstein, a labor
economist at the Economic Policy Institute, argues that
men's pay would still be 25 percent higher than women's, as
it was in 2000, if men's pay had continued to grow at the
1995-to-2000 pace, when the economy boomed and employers
hired in droves.

That prosperous five-year stretch was no help at all in
closing the wage gap. These were years in which
high-technology companies and dot-coms prospered, and they
were big employers of well-paid men, whose high wages
pulled up the median for their group.

Just as this was happening, women's pay was held down. The
surge in hiring brought thousands of women from welfare
into low-wage jobs, and their presence became a drag on the
median wage of women. The wage gap even began to widen a
bit, but starting in 1998 manufacturing jobs disappeared in
large numbers, and that blow to well-paid blue-collar men
pushed down the median pay of all men.

The convergence in pay, of course, also reflects the
underlying achievement of women in recent years. They are
graduating from college in greater numbers than men and
pushing into high-end occupations once dominated by men.
The share of women, for example, in "executive,
administrative and managerial occupations," as the labor
bureau calls this category, is more than 46 percent today,
up from 40 percent in 1990 and 32 percent in 1983. And
there are similar or even greater gains in various
administrative and professional ranks.

Women are also gradually pushing into high-paid blue-collar
occupations, despite continued sexual segregation, and each
step forward helps to lift the median pay of women
vis-à-vis men.

Volvo Trucks North America, for example, is one of the few
manufacturing companies that is hiring these days, adding
1,117 people this year at plants in Pennsylvania, Virginia
and Maryland.

Enough of these hires are women to lift their presence on
the assembly lines, where union wages apply, to 15 percent
from 13 percent in 2003, the company says.

Driving tractor-trailers on long hauls across the country
is another bastion of high-paid men's work that women have
been trickling into lately.

Of the 3,800 drivers at C. R. England, for example, 10
percent are women, up from zero in the 1980's, said Dean
England, chief operating officer of the family-owned
company based in Salt Lake City.

Not many people are able to adjust to the rigors of a
lifestyle that keeps them on the road for weeks at a time,
Mr. England said. The driver turnover rate at his company
is 100 percent a year, but for those who can handle it -
men and women - the pay averages $40,000.

"They are mostly middle-aged women," Mr. England said, "and
they come to us because they are sick of having to work so
hard at service jobs that pay only $10 an hour."

As for the DeSistos in the Boston suburbs, Marie is working
her way up the pay scale while her husband, Tom, is
starting a new career as a high school math teacher earning
$50,000, half his old pay.

"I'm teaching the basics at the start, algebra and
geometry, moving along with the kids," he said. "You work
with freshmen and sophomores and as the years go by, you
teach them trig and higher math."

Mr. DeSisto, a civil engineer, had 30 years at Verizon and
its predecessors, Bell Atlantic and before that, AT&T. He
had expected to work at Verizon into his 60's. But
management, bent on downsizing, offered enhanced early
retirement packages, with the clear message, Mr. DeSisto
said, that layoffs would ensue if the retirement offer was

It was not. Last year, 21,600 people took early retirement
at Verizon, a number of them men like Mr. DeSisto with
enough tenure to qualify for lump sum pension payouts in
the high six figures. After nine months of unemployment, he
took the teaching job in the school system that employs his

Mrs. DeSisto went back to work as a nurse 11 years ago,
when the youngest of the DeSistos' three children was 10,
working first in the Framingham schools where her salary
rose in time to $36,000 - and then to $56,000 when she
shifted to the supervisor's job in Waltham five years ago.

Her salary has risen annually ever since, partly through
raises but also in recognition of a recently earned
master's degree in nursing and business administration.

But what truly drives the expansion of school nursing and
the rising pay, in her view, is the growing incidence of
health problems among students, now that more disabled and
ailing children are accepted into the public schools. Her
staff has expanded to 16 nurses from 9 when she arrived.

"I like to hire nurses with master's degrees and
experience," she said. "They are in buildings where they
are the only ones with medical knowledge."


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