Mind the Gap: The Gender Gap in the Labor Force

Studies show that despite outpacing men in educational attainment, women still lag in wages and labor force participation


Do women need to have more education to receive the same pay as men? According to new research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, women earn less than men—even when taking into account their educational attainment. In particular, women need to earn at least one degree higher than men to receive the same earnings.

In fact, mounting evidence shows that high academic achievement does not help women in the job market. One study found that high-achieving male job applicants received calls for interviews twice as often as similarly high-achieving female applicants. The ratio increased three-to-one for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs.

These findings are consistent with an RTI-conducted National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report that followed a cohort of 2002 high school sophomores up to 2012 when most participants were 26 years old, had completed some postsecondary education, and had entered the labor force. The infographic shows that although women are making strides in education—surpassing men in bachelor’s and advanced degree attainment—these gains are not equally translated into their labor force outcomes when compared with men’s. As researchers, we find these gaps troubling. The data lead us to ask some tough questions:

  • Why are women (1) less likely to be employed than men and (2) more likely to be employed only part time?
  • Why are women earning less than men? This happens even though men and women work in the same occupational fields; in the same geographic location; and with similar academic achievement, work intensity, and family lives.
  • Can the educational system prepare women to better transition their educational achievements into workforce achievements?
  • Is the pay gap indicative of gender discrimination in the job market or in the larger society?

Head of the Class: Women Outperform Men in Postsecondary Achievements

According to the NCES report, women are enrolling in postsecondary education and achieving bachelor’s and advanced degrees at higher rates than men. Among the 2002 high school sophomore cohort, more female than male students (88% versus 80%) had enrolled in postsecondary education by 2012. Among these enrollees, more female than male students had earned a postsecondary credential (79% versus 72%), particularly a master’s or another advanced degree (9% versus 6%), by 2012. Despite outperforming men in postsecondary education, women have not been able to transition this success from the classroom to the labor market.

Labor Force Results

The NCES report found that in 2012, female respondents were (1) less likely to be employed than male respondents and (2) more likely to be employed part time or to be out of the labor force. In addition, 24% of women reported receiving public assistance for the previous year, compared to only 14% of men.

Additionally, the report found that women, despite attaining higher levels of education, earned less than men. In 2012, women’s median hourly wage was $14, compared with $15 for men. The gender gap in earnings remained, and even increased, after controlling for respondents’ demographic backgrounds; academic characteristics; current enrollment status; family lives (e.g., martial and parenthood statuses); and job-related factors (e.g., occupation fields, work intensity, and geographic location). Controlling for these factors, hourly wages were $16 for women and $18 for men. In other words, women earn around $2 per hour less than men who have the same level of education, work in the same occupational field in the same geographic area, and have the same marital status and number of children.

Many people explain the gender gap by pointing to factors such as maternity leave; taking time off from work to care for children or aging and sick family members; and women’s traditional preference towards jobs in lower-paying fields, like education and social work. The findings from this study indicate that there is more to the story—even when controlling for these and other factors, women are still earning less than men in the same industry.

The evidence suggests that more education alone is not the solution to close the gender gap in earnings. We have an opportunity to engage in an open discussion about making changes in legislation—supporting increased maternity and paternity leave, promoting wage transparency, or preventing employers from using salary history to determine wages—as well as changes in society. We need to find out why women aren’t going after the highest-paying jobs within an occupational field—why there are more female nurses than female doctors, more female workers than female CEOs, or more female paralegals than female lawyers—and use that information to narrow the gender gap for good.