The US state of West Virginia is often remembered for its coal mines and country roads—but not for its role in discussions of the gender pay gap.
According to a new study by the US think tank Pew Research Center, which analyzed US census data, the Morgantown metropolitan area — the third largest city in the state, home to the University of West Virginia — is one of the few places in the country where women earn more than men.
In that region, the average salary of female full-time workers under the age of 30 is 14% higher than the average salary of men in the same age group. In fact, this city in the Appalachians is second in a list of 10 metropolitan areas where women under 30 earn comparatively higher wages—behind only the city of Wenatchee, Washington.
Nationally, the gender pay gap persists. On average, American women earn the equivalent of 82% of men’s wages. But in 22 of the 250 metropolitan areas analyzed, women’s salaries are equal or better.
Why do women earn more than men in such specific regions of the United States? And do these promising numbers in certain regions mean that the pay gap may be slowly closing?
education and industry
There are some patterns that help explain these findings, according to Richard Fry, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center and author of the report.
The first factor is education. Places where women earn as much or more than men (mostly cities along the east and west coasts of the United States) have a higher percentage of young women with college degrees, according to Fry. “In metropolitan areas where young women have a greater educational advantage, wage inequality tends to be lower,” he says. “College degrees tend to increase earnings, reducing the pay gap.”
This variable may explain, at least in part, why specific cities in Florida and West Virginia make the list of the 10 metro areas with the highest salaries for women, despite the high average disparities in their states, which are 15% and 26%. %, respectively.
“Morgantown is a college town,” says Fry, “just like Gainesville, Florida . . . among the 22 metro areas where women are par or better paid, many are home to large universities.”
These cities may have a greater number of higher-paying jobs available. In addition, women who remain in these metropolitan areas after graduation tend to earn more, thanks to this “educational advantage,” according to Fry.
Education is also probably, at least in part, what propels Wenatchee, Washington State, to the top of the list. There, the average annual salary for women is 120% of that of young men.
“In Washington, I believe 60 percent of women have a college degree,” according to Fry. “So we’re really talking about a workforce of well-educated young women in Washington.”
Another factor influencing the pay gap is the type of employment and the industries that dominate certain geographic regions. The second-largest employer in Wenatchee is the local metropolitan schools—and in the United States, women hold more than three-quarters of jobs in the education sector.
The share of women in industrial jobs is less than 30%. As a result, in several metro areas with the widest pay gap — including Saginaw (Michigan), Decatur (Illinois) and Mansfield (Ohio) — factories are among the top employers.
“The metro area with the biggest pay gap is Elkhart-Goshen, Indiana, where young women earn just 67% of men’s pay,” says Fry. “It’s known as the ‘trailer capital of the world’.”
In fact, more than 80% of the world’s production of trailers, or recreational vehicles, takes place in that region of northern Indiana, near the Michigan border. “There are a lot of industries there, which can have consequences for the wages of young women compared to men,” says Fry.
When—or if—women decide to have children can influence a geographic region’s pay gap.
Across the country — and across the world, including in countries like the UK — women suffer the “maternity penalty” that widens the pay gap. When women are mothers, they earn even less than men (while men see their salaries increase when they become fathers). Estimates indicate that mothers earn the equivalent of only 70% of fathers’ wages.
Motherhood, in fact, is an important factor influencing pay gap statistics, according to Alexandra Killewald, a professor of sociology at Harvard University. “The estimated hourly wage penalty for being a mother is about 10%, compared to what would be expected if the woman remained childless,” she says.
Therefore, in some regions where women are mothers earlier, the pay gap also widens. In Elkhart, Indiana (which has the widest pay gap), the average age at which mothers have their first child is nearly three years lower than the US national average of 26.3 years.
In places where the average age of mothers when their first child is born is lower, the pay gap is greater—and the reverse is also true. In metropolitan areas of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example, women earn the equivalent of 102% of men’s wages. And in Manhattan, which is in that geographic area, the average age of mothers with a first child is over 31.
“Over time, we’ve seen mothers having their children later and later and a certain reduction in the number of children,” says Killewald. “This means that more women are taking longer to become mothers and spending more of their working lives childless.” For this reason, she explains that women are able to remain in the labor market for longer and their salaries follow the salary of men.
But about 85% of American women, regardless of where they live, will someday be mothers, according to Killewald. And, in terms of the wage gap, the tendency is for it to increase after the birth of children.
A harbinger of progress — or not?
While the new data provides good signals for women in many places, there is one caveat: The Pew Research Center report only examines data for women ages 16 to 29—but historical patterns show that after age 30, the disparity starts to widen.
Fry mentions comparative data that can help paint a picture of the future. “In 2000, young women under the age of 30 earned the equivalent of 88% of the wages of young men.”
Another study of the same group in 2019 concluded that they were “35 to 48 years old and earn the equivalent of 80% of the salaries of men of the same age. [Por isso,] If today’s young women follow a similar pattern as in the past, the pay gap will tend to widen.”
But Fry points out that this is just a prediction based on data from another generation. Killewald claims it may also be evidence of a longer trend. “Since 1990, progress towards wage parity has been slower than it was between 1980 and 1990, but there has still been progress year after year,” she says. “I think there are reasons to be optimistic.”
And as people — particularly young voters — support issues like daycare subsidies, tax credits and other policies that benefit women in the workforce, she says some of that parity could become more permanent. .
“We could think of policies that, say, reduce mandatory overtime or the like,” says Killewald, “that make work easier particularly for mothers to stay working. It’s hard to know if we’ll see the same kind of reduction in the pay gap for these women.” as they move through the course of life, or whether younger women have really made progress.”
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