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Opinion

The Persistent and Pernicious Gender Pay Gap | Opinion

Credit: iStock

by Dan Weeks, New Hampshire Bulletin

Call me biased, but my daughter is clever as can be. She’s devouring chapter books and spelling up a storm at the age of 6, long before I learned to read and write. If she gets tired of her brothers buzzing around her as noisy make-believe planes and trains, all she has to do is whip out one of their favorite storybooks and they’ll plop down silently beside her, hanging on her every word. Same goes for math, where her idea of a perfect present these days is an exercise book chock full of addition and subtraction problems for her to solve!

Turns out, she’s not alone. Although American girls were long relegated to second-class status when it came to education – and still are in certain disciplines and in many parts of the world – recent generations have increasingly excelled in school. According to detailed research released by the Brookings Institution last fall, nearly 9 out of 10 girls graduate high school on time, compared to around 8 in 10 boys.

It helps that girls outperform boys when it comes to reading in every single state, and are even or ahead of boys in math in all but 12 states, according to the Stanford Education Data Archive. In 10 states, including New Hampshire, girls are more than a full grade level ahead of boys in English.

The academic achievement gap does not end in high school. The Brookings Institution’s analysis of U.S. census data found that young women outperform young men when it comes to college completion in all 50 states. According to the Census Bureau’s five-year estimates published in 2020, 41 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 34 held a bachelor’s degree compared to 32 percent of men nationwide. In New Hampshire, the college completion gap is similarly wide at 46 percent and 37 percent for women and men, respectively.

This is all the more impressive when you consider that just 12 percent of women held a bachelor’s degree in 1970, far below the 20 percent of men with college degrees at the time. Perhaps it’s time we start rethinking the term “bachelor” when it comes to college credentials?

In light of this remarkable progress of a historically marginalized group in closing – and more – the longstanding, socially imposed gender achievement gap in American education, you would expect the longstanding, socially imposed gender pay gap to close as well. But that is sadly not the case.

According to the latest Pew Research Analysis of U.S. census data released this month, the gender pay gap has barely budged in the last 20 years. In 2022, the average female worker earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men in median hourly wages. In 2002, the gap was just two cents wider at 80 cents nationwide.

In New Hampshire, the gap is wider still. For reasons we do not fully understand, Granite State women earn just 76 cents on the dollar, according to the 2023 Status of Women report, a comprehensive assessment of gender equity in the Granite State. (The report is published by the New Hampshire Women’s Foundation, on whose board I am honored to serve.)

In fact, Tuesday, March 14, was designated “Equal Pay Day” in New Hampshire – the day that symbolizes how far into the year the average full-time working woman must work in order to earn what the average full-time working man already earned the previous year. To think of my whip-smart daughter (or wife, for that matter) having to work 2½ months longer than my sons (or me) just to “catch up” on earnings for the prior year, and falling further and further behind over the course of a career, is maddening.

The gap is particularly evident when viewed along racial lines. According to U.S. census data analyzed in the Status of Women report, Granite State women of European descent fare slightly better than average, earning 80 cents for every dollar paid to men, while Hispanic and African American women like my wife fare much worse at 63 cents. That’s a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a career – a surefire way to keep the centuries old racial-wealth gap intact. Small wonder that Hispanic and African American women also experience poverty at twice the rate or more (14 percent and 18 percent, respectively) of women considered “white” (7 percent) and three times the rate of men (5 percent).

Similar inequities exist for working women with children at home, who are paid 67 percent of the wages earned by men in New Hampshire. For women without children, the gap is meaningfully smaller at 85 percent. It certainly doesn’t help that our state faces an acute lack of affordable child care, as documented in the Status of Women report.

More worrying still, the gender pay gap has only widened in New Hampshire in recent years, thanks to the disproportionate economic and family pressures imposed on women by the COVID-19 pandemic. The average full-time working woman in New Hampshire earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2019 before falling six percentage points to 76 cents today.

These profound economic inequities run afoul of America’s stated commitment to meritocracy, as the educational performance data above make crystal clear.

Rather than an inevitable expression of natural or economic laws, they are a matter of policy – of the choices we make in society to invest in social goods like child care and health care, or not; to provide fair compensation for women-dominated fields like education and social services, or not; to demand (and vote for) gender diversity in C-suites and the halls of government, or not.

Our failure to make the right choices in Concord and Washington, and in the various institutions to which we all belong, is not just detrimental to women and girls – it harms us all, men and boys included. Good reason for all of us to support sensible state policies that will advance gender justice this legislative session.

The next time I catch my little girl reading to her brothers – bringing calm to an ever-rambunctious home – I might just add a dollar to her allowance. Better still, I’ll challenge myself and fellow men to face the uncomfortable fact of our persistent and pernicious gender pay gap, and join the fight for gender justice, for the good of all.

This story was written by Dan Weeks, vice president of business development for ReVision Energy and contributor to the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.