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Policy Backgrounders

CED’s Policy Backgrounders provide timely insights on prominent business and economic policy issues facing the nation.

The Continuing Gender Wage Gap

April 25, 2024

Trusted Insights for What’s Ahead™

Women’s labor force participation fully recovered by February 2023 from the lows seen at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, surpassing pre-pandemic levels to reach record-high participation rates by June 2023. Alongside this rebound, the gender pay gap is the narrowest it has ever been, according to data released in 2023 by the Census Bureau (the most recent data available). However, progress in further closing this gap has been slow, with progress stagnating in the past decade. Contributing to the lack of progress, women continue to attend college at higher rates than men but remain significantly underrepresented among those receiving STEM bachelor’s degrees required for many of the highest earning careers.

  • Among married couples, women’s financial contributions have grown steadily over the last 50 years. In opposite-sex marriages, the share of women who earn as much or significantly more than their husbands has roughly tripled since 1972. Today, just 55 percent of marriages have a husband as a primary or sole breadwinner.
  • Women make up nearly half of the US labor force but represent only 35 percent of workers in the ten highest-paying occupations. While significant progress has been made in women’s representation in these occupations, women remain the minority in nine out of ten of them. The exception is pharmacists, 61 percent of whom are women.  
  • Longitudinal data shows that immediately following college or graduate school, wages for men and women are largely similar. In these early years, differences in pay are explained by differences in fields of study and occupational choices. Ten years later, differences in pay become significant, with the income gap widening following marriage, when many women take on the role of primary caregiver to young children.

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