Sociology Gender Pay Gap
JooHee Han, Michelle Budig
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0226


The “gender pay gap” refers to the average difference in men’s and women’s earnings, and is typically adjusted for hours worked. The gender pay gap can refer to differences in mean or median annual earnings, weekly earnings, or hourly wage. Because women tend to work part-time at higher rates than do men, and because part-time work tends to pay lower hourly wages relative to full-time work, the size of the gender pay gap is affected by whether full- and part-time, full-year or seasonal, and very young and very old workers are included in the estimates. Among full-time, year-round American workers aged sixteen and above in 2017, the gender pay gap (median weekly earnings) was 18.2 percent, meaning that women earned 81.8 cents of every man’s dollar. In the United States, women of color earn less relative to white men than white women do, owing to racial gaps in pay among women; moreover, within-race gender pay gaps are often smaller among racial/ethnic minorities, reflecting the low earnings of minority men. The gender gap has narrowed considerably since the early 20th century, yet disparities in women’s and men’s earnings persist. Moreover, this narrowing has not proceeded in a linear fashion and the gap has occasionally increased. This entry first introduces important literatures on historic and contemporary trends in the gender pay gap and then discusses the various explanations for the persistence of, and changes in, the gap. These explanations highlight the role of occupational gender segregation; the devaluation of female-typed work; gender differences in experience; family structure, care responsibilities, and the gendered impact of parenthood; workplace structures of inequality; glass ceilings and glass escalators. This entry concludes with a discussion of narrowing the gap and what it will take to close the gap.

Historic and Contemporary Trends

The gender pay gap has declined over time. The rapid attenuation of the gap occurred until the 1990s but the pace began to slow down in the 2000s. Scholars question how to understand the declining gender pay gap and the slower pace of the decline in recent decades. Blau, et al. 2008 explores the questions of whether the gender revolution is completely stalled and what factors are implicated in the declining pace of change. Because the gender pay gap refers to women’s pay level relative to men’s, the declining gender pay gap does not necessarily imply women’s progress in pay. Bernhardt, et al. 1995 points out that some part of the attenuation of gender gap is attributable to men’s wage decline rather than only women’s gain in wage. At the same time, Mandel 2013 and Mandel and Semyonov 2014 show that devaluation of female-dominated occupations and of feminized occupations may offset women’s progress in wage level, resulting in slow decline in the gender pay gap. Despite the attenuation of the gender pay gap, Blau and Kahn 2006 shows that residual difference by gender not explained by observed individual level human capital and the changes in the occupational structure became larger in the 1990s than 1980s, suggesting discrimination continues to produce gender gap at large.

  • Bernhardt, Annette, Martina Morris, and Mark S. Handcock. 1995. Women’s gains or men’s losses? A closer look at the shrinking gender gap in earnings. American Sociological Review 102.3: 1–37.

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    This study traces the source of the closing gender wage gaps in the 1967–1987 period. By decomposing distributional changes in this period, the authors find that the relative gain of women’s earning is attributed to the increasing wage inequality in men’s earnings, pushing women from the lower distribution of earnings. This suggests that women’s relative gains to men’s may be illusory.

  • Blau, Francine D., Mary C. Brinton, and David Grusky. 2008. The declining significance of gender? New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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    The authors in this edited book try to answer whether closing the gender gap in the labor market is stalled or still on the process to complete parity.

  • Blau, Francine D., and Lawrence Kahn. 2006. The U.S. gender pay gap in the 1990s: Slowing convergence. Industrial & Labor Relations Review 60.1: 45–66.

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    The authors question why the convergence of the gender pay gap slowed down in the 1990s relative to the 1980s. They show the reduction of the unexplained residual between men and women’s pay gap was slower during the 1990s than the 1980s, which suggests that discrimination, selectivity, and differences in unmeasured characteristics may be the main causes of the slowdown.

  • Mandel, Hadas. 2013. Up the down staircase: Women’s upward mobility and the wage penalty for occupational feminization, 1970–2007. Social Forces 91.4: 1183–1207.

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    Mandel poses an insightful question from the two critical but separately analyzed trends: penalization of feminized occupations and increasing occupational mobility of women. Using the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) data between 1970 and 2007, the author shows that, as an increasing number of women work in traditionally high-paying male-dominated occupations in management and the professions, they earn less than they otherwise would because the feminization of the occupations lowers their pay.

  • Mandel, Hadas, and Moshe Semyonov. 2014. Gender pay gap and employment sector: Sources of earnings disparities in the United States, 1970–2010. Demography 51:1597–1618.

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    Although an increasing number of women have entered into high-paying occupations, their occupational mobility is compromised/offset by devaluation of these traditionally male-dominated but newly feminized occupations. Such devaluation effect is stronger in high-wage male-typed occupations.

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