Gender Pay Gap, Once Closing, Largely Stagnates During Economic Slowdown

Though the share of women participating in the low-wage workforce has declined in the past three decades, it's remained relatively stagnant for the last five years.

Women composed about half of the workforce in 2010, but they constituted 59 percent of the low-wage workforce, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. Women's representation in the low-wage workforce has declined steadily from 73 percent since 1980, but it has largely stagnated at approximately 59 percent since 2005. And though women are more educated than men, they continue to be paid less. Women between the ages of 25 and 34 now finish high school and college at a rate of 37 percent, compared to 29 percent of young men, the report found.

Women's high level of concentration in the low-wage workforce has dragged down their average earnings and made it more difficult to narrow the wage gap between men and women. Still, the American workforce is making some progress in closing the gap; in 2000, less educated women earned 19 cents less for every dollar that men made, in 2010 that pay difference shrunk to 14 cents less for every dollar that men made, according to the GAO report.

Another reason for the slow progress: Women continue to get locked out of the highest-paying jobs, especially corporate management positions. Just 14 percent of senior executives at Fortune 500 companies were women: a share that has barely budged since 2005 after 10 years of slow increases, according to The New York Times.

To an extent, less educated women continue to make less money than less educated men because they often end up working in lower-paying sectors. Health care, social assistance, and retail, which pay an average of $14 per hour, drew the largest number of less educated women, while many less educated men earned more $19 per hour on average while working in construction, transportation, or utilities, according to the GAO report. Manufacturing, the most popular occupation among less educated men, paid about $17 per hour on average.

Though men bore the brunt of job losses during the recession because they work in industries more sensitive to economic downturns, such as manufacturing and construction, according to the NYT, they're now enjoying more of the benefits of the slow economic recovery. For example, male employment in mining and logging has increased 13.8 percent since the beginning of the economic recovery in June 2009, and male employment in professional and business services has risen 5.6 percent, according to a Pew Research Center report cited by the NYT.

But women's unemployment rose 0.4 percent between June 2009 -- when the recovery began -- and September 2011. During the same period, the unemployment rate for men dropped 1.1 percent.

Women are likely having a tougher recovery because the sectors in which they work have been slashing jobs. The public sector is losing jobs at the same rate that the private sector is adding them, according to a report released earlier this week. That phenomenon has been especially rough on women; they lost a total of 407,000 public sector jobs between June 2009 and September 2011, virtually wiping out their private sector gains in the same period.