For several years a national advertisement has told women that they have come a long way. In many areas this is true. Education levels have risen, new job opportunities have opened and in some cases men are sharing more household responsibilities. But, economically, the average woman is in much the same situation in which she found herself in 1978, and the older she gets, the greater the economic disparity between her and her male counterpart.
Last month the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues reported on the status of women in 1987-88. The report confirmed what most women suspected. The 1985 median income for women was 68% of the median income for men. Superficially this appears to be an improvement over a similar 1978 comparison in which women's salaries were only 61% of those of their male counterparts. But a recession that cut the median male income did more to narrow the gap than any increase in women's salaries.
More startling was the extent to which the wage gap increases as women get older. While a man generally doubles his income between the ages of 25 and 55, a 55-year-old woman earns approximately the same income as a 25-year-old woman. While many believe that this lack of advancement is due to inexperience and employment gaps when women stay home with children, the U. S. Census Bureau concluded that these two reasons account for only 5% of the income difference. The primary cause is that 40% of the full-time female working force works in predominantly female occupations like nursing, teaching and clerical positions. These salaries are generally lower than salaries in traditionally male-oriented fields.
For women who do work in predominantly male fields, however, the outlook is equally dim. These women, the report says, generally remain at the bottom of the job hierarchy and thus earn lower incomes than their male counterparts, causing an even greater wage gap between the sexes.
College women fare little better in the full-time employment field. The average university woman graduate currently earns about the same as a male high-school dropout, the report says.
What all this means to women is that too often they live with marginal incomes. Last year more than 1 million divorces left countless women supporting families. It is estimated that 30% to 50% of these families will now live in poverty. The report calls this the "feminization of poverty." Perhaps the tobacco company would be more accurate to say, "You've got a long way to go, baby."