The Agenda

The New Gender Gap

I’m a great admirer of NYU sociologist Robert Max Jackson’s 1998 book Destined for Equality. In a review published in the Journal of Social History, Rhonda Williams summarized the central argument as follows:

Jackson ultimately argues that women’s rising has not resulted as much from social movements as from the modernizing of society. He maintains that: “Gender inequality has been fated for extinction since the emergence of modern political and economic organization.” Jackson contests feminist scholars’ interpretations that the state has served to preserve male advantages and that it was women’s daily and organized struggles which resulted in greater gender equality. While not dismissing the importance of activism, Jackson challenges its centrality as the major engine of change. Changes benefiting women did not always result from political protest, but occurred in other realms as well, including the state and business.  

Jackson’s overarching explanation is rooted in the self-interest of public bureaucracies and business enterprises. His book came to mind as I read Belinda Luscombe’s article in Time on the closing pay gap for unmarried and childless workers under 30:

According to a new analysis of 2,000 communities by a market research company, in 147 out of 150 of the biggest cities in the U.S., the median full-time salaries of young women are 8% higher than those of the guys in their peer group. In two cities, Atlanta and Memphis, those women are making about 20% more. This squares with earlier research from Queens College, New York, that had suggested that this was happening in major metropolises. But the new study suggests that the gap is bigger than previously thought, with young women in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego making 17%, 12% and 15% more than their male peers, respectively. And it also holds true even in reasonably small areas like the Raleigh-Durham region and Charlotte in North Carolina (both 14% more), and Jacksonville, Fla. (6%).

One assumes that the gender gap that emerges after marriage and child-rearing has much to do with established cultural practices regarding the division of household labor and parental responsibilities. Many argue that the state ought to actively intervene to encourage more gender inequality in these intimate spaces. I tend to see this as rather intrusive if not illiberal notion, though I certainly think public policy should be gender-neutral. Regardless, Luscombe’s article is certainly illustrative of a broader economic trend: women have long since surpassed men in educational attainment in younger cohorts, so this “reverse” gender gap was eminently predictable. 

Note that the cities with the biggest reverse gap between women’s earnings and men’s earnings — Memphis and Atlanta — also have very large African American populations. The educational attainment gap between women and men is unusually large among African Americans. 

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