What Women Earn
Take two girls from suburban Smyrna, Georgia. One grows up to become America's favorite actress, pulling down a cool $20 million per film with plenty of free time to chill out on her ranch. The other, on moving to Smyrna, finds a career as a fast-food restaurant manager, working 55 hours a week, all for $29,000 a year. As Smyrna girls Julia Roberts and Evelyn Hernandez could tell you, such is the hard-earned, wide-ranging, and not always equitable paycheck of the American woman.
The $20 million woman:
As everyone knows, more women than ever are employed in the workplace, despite a slight downturn in the number of new moms immediately returning to work in the last two years. And women's paychecks have risen accordingly: Between 1979 and 2000, salaries for white women grew at about 22.9 percent (adjusted for inflation), reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, women of color fared far worse: Earnings in the same period grew just 14.7 percent for African-American women, and just 4.6 percent for Hispanic women. Add it all up, and the average American woman working full time makes $491 a week ($303 if she doesn't have a high-school diploma, and $760 if she has a college degree).
We don't pocket all of those earnings, of course. Taxes take a bite, and Social Security accounts for a 6.2 percent chunk, of which an average of $756 per month is doled out to women when they reach retirement age. Of all working women, 27.9 million have health insurance through their employer, which takes an average of $4,430 a year from their salaries. Wisely, many of us put a portion of our wages toward the future; a typical woman's IRA is valued at $26,307, and for defined-contribution plans, such as a 401(k), a woman's accounts have an accumulated average value of $25,020.
But what puzzles economists is that women are still making considerably less -- about 76 cents on the dollar -- than men. While we're pretty much equal in income when we begin our careers, the gap between men's and women's salaries gets bigger as time goes on. "It's not until men and women get into their 30s and 40s that the wage gap exists," says Jay Meisenheimer, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The discrepancy exists across the board -- even in professional fields like medicine, law, and management.
Why, in this presumably liberated age, do women continue to earn less? Part of it has to do with the jobs we choose: "Men are still more likely to be in fields like electrical engineering, and women are still more likely to be teachers," says Meisenheimer. Another reason: In their 20s and 30s -- the peak years for accumulating valuable work experience and the paychecks to match -- many women take short- or long-term leaves from work to raise their children, making it harder for them to catch up monetarily when they return to the office. Indeed, family is a huge factor: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the gender pay gap in 2000 was widest among parents, with mothers earning just two-thirds of the income of fathers.
And yet not all of us are angrily hammering at the glass ceiling, demanding justice. "Women see the work and family thing differently -- they are more interested in flexibility than money," says Marie C. Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women. Polls consistently show that women would take a lower-paying job that offered them more free time.
The rise in female entrepreneurship certainly seems to show that women aren't always in the job for the money. Currently, there are 6.2 million women business owners, reports the Center for Women's Business Research, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. And, according to a Center poll, women don't start their own businesses in hopes of getting rich; the majority say they simply had a great idea and wanted to make it happen.