A new meme has cropped up lately, on both the left and the right: Yeah, sure, maybe there's a gender wage gap, but it's really just because ladies make different choices.
The wage gap does balloon over a woman's career, particularly post-children. But don't those women make less because they decided to leave work early to take the kids to soccer practice? Didn't they decide to hop on the mommy track and take a less ambitious job so they could focus more energy on family?
Despite the inherent sexism behind these scenarios -- why do women feel an intense pressure to mommy track that men avoid? -- they imply that women who don't have such worries shouldn't experience the wage gap. Under this logic, women who have just graduated college and who don't yet have a husband or children should be making similar "choices" as their male peers and earn as much as they do. This would also bolster the argument that women's dominance in getting higher degrees foretells, if not the end of men, at least the beginning of the end of women being at the bottom of the economic ladder.
So some researchers at the American Association of University Women put that theory to the test. In a study released last week, Christianne Corbett and Catherine Hill looked at data from the Department of Education, which had interviewed about 15,000 people to compare the earnings of men and women a year out of college.
This is a perfect group to study: Analyzing the gender pay gap among college graduates at the beginning of their careers provides valuable insight. Most are young (23 years old, on average), are relatively inexperienced in the workplace, have never been married and are not raising children. The broad similarities in the lives of men and women at this time set the stage for a solid comparison.
Yet, sadly, the gender wage gap didn't disappear -- but not for lack of trying on the researchers' part. They looked at a variety of factors that might account for it.
Where grads went to school? Nope, the gap "exists within nearly every category of institution and level of selectivity."
The grades they earned? Women actually earned slightly higher grades on average.
Number of hours worked at the new job? While women reported lower hours overall, the gap reared its ugly head among men and women working the same number of hours.
Two areas have some bearing on earnings: choice of major and choice of occupation. Women may have stormed the university halls, but they've mostly left untouched segregation by field of study. That can hurt earnings. Graduates with degrees in female-dominated majors tend to make less than those with male-dominated majors.
Yet among those who choose the same major, men and women don't make the same money. Among business majors, for example, women earned just over $38,000, while men earned just over $45,000. The same is true for occupational segregation. Men and women tend to hold very different types of jobs, yet within those jobs women make less. Female teachers earned 89 percent of what their male peers did. Female managers earned 86 percent. Female salespeople earned 77 percent. And on.
After looking at all of these factors, the researchers still found a stubborn 7 percent gap between what women were making and what men were making. That left them with few ways to explain the gap. They offered two possible explanations: One is that women are just bad at negotiating better pay. Yet studies have shown that women do ask for more -- they just aren't rewarded. The only other option is straight up gender discrimination.
This discrimination clearly starts at an early age -- the second women nab their first job. But it follows them no matter where they go or what they do. Not only do grads with newly minted BAs make less, but they keep making less than men with each subsequent degree, and the gap actually widens as they progress. They make less than men no matter what industry or occupation they enter.
New data also show that the gap follows them around no matter where they live. In no state in our nation do women breach the 90 percent mark, though some states are definitely worse than others: The gap in Utah, Louisiana and Wyoming doesn't break 60 percent. But even the best place for women to live, Washington, D.C., clocks in at 87 percent.
We can differ on how to address the gap. Mitt Romney's plan seems to be crossing his fingers that the private sector will decide to pay women more on its own. Others have pushed for tougher legislation to crack down on companies that discriminate against their female employees. But any woman anywhere can tell you: We earn less than men no matter what we "choose" to do.
Bryce Covert is editor of the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog. She lives and works in New York City. Copyright (C) 2012 The Nation -- distributed by Agence Global.