How to Close the Wage Gap Without Paying Men Less

The wage gap between men and women is finally shrinking, according to a recent study, but a report released Friday shows that women are getting a smaller percentage of new jobs and that female unemployment is on the rise. Do we have cause to celebrate or not?

The new report from the National Women's Law Center shows that only 4,000 of the 103,000 jobs gained in September went to women and that female unemployment is on the rise, increasing slightly from 8.0 percent in August 2011 to 8.1 percent in September 2011. But this sobering news comes on the heels of new U.S. Census data reported in the New York Times on October 1st that showed that American women's earnings have increased and that the gender wage gap appears to be closing: Women's median weekly earnings were 79 cents for every dollar earned by men in the first quarter of 2010 but jumped to 83 cents to the dollar in the second quarter of 2011.

According the Times, the increased parity in men and women's income has more to do with the drop in men's wages than an increase in women's. Median earnings for men, adjusted for inflation, fell by $2,433 -- or 6 percent -- from 2007 to 2010, while women's earnings fell by only $253, or a decrease of 0.9 percent, according to an analysis by the American Human Development Project.

But is the closing of the gap really all about men earning less? What about the analysis of 2010 Census data that showed single, childless, urban U.S. women under 30 out-earning their male peers? (Tim Worstal recently pointed out in Forbes that women in their 20s in the UK are doing the same.)

I'm optimistic that women of all ages can make up the gap on their own terms without having men loose out to do it -- and without resorting to the Catherine Hakim-recommended tactic of capitalizing on their "erotic capital" to get ahead or the Guardian's suggestion that women arm wrestle for that extra ten grand. Women are already leading the way in education -- 37 percent of women in the work force age 25 and older had attained a bachelor's degree or more as of 2010, compared to 35 percent of their male peers, while the gap widens when you examine the U.S. population in their late 20s, where 36 percent of women have a bachelor's degree or more, compared with 28 percent of men.

Though the National Women's Law Center's report included the discouraging finding that of the 34,000 public sector jobs lost last month, 28,000 (82 percent) were jobs held by women, the American Human Development Project analysis found that the lucrative fields of management, business and finance gained 376,000 women during the recession -- albeit while losing 119,000 men.

It's conceivable that in some cases men were fired and women hired in part because companies still get away with paying women less, but that can't be true across the board.

It's clear at this point that the way to close the wage gap in a way that doesn't involve lowering men's wages is to focus on increasing the earning potential of working women with children. As Jennifer Owens, Editorial Director of Working Mother magazine, pointed out on MoneyWatch:

Pay levels are, in general, equal for men and women until about the age that women begin to have children. Once the pressures of family appear, women's comparative pay shrinks, in part, because too many women are forced either to leave the workforce or dial back their careers to take over childcare duties. Once they return to work, women find their pay rate diminished. In fact, studies find the pay gap is actually worse between working mothers and women without children, than between women and men.

Owens suggest that companies harness the power of educated, qualified women -- and men -- by offering flexible work schedules to help them balance their work and family lives. We also need to eliminate the stigma against stay-at-home dads and find a way to get men to actually take paternity leave -- without penalizing them for it. None of these steps is an easy one, but our society and our suffering economy stand to benefit enormously if we take them. According to UN Women, if women earned as much as men, the U.S. GDP would increase by 9 percent. We can't afford not to pay women more.