According to a new Pew Research Center study, the gender wage gap narrowed in the last 35 years because more women began working in positions that require above-average social and analytical skills. In 1980, a woman earned about 60 cents to every dollar her male colleague made. Today, researchers report, a woman will make about 80 cents on the dollar.
The survey, titled "The State of American Jobs," focuses on how people see job training differently as the skills needed to get ahead change over time. With assistance from the Markle Foundation, researchers analyzed the responses of about 5,000 adults, including 3,096 who were employed at the time of the study.
Among their findings, researchers suggest that women are benefiting from the change in skill set demand. Industries like health care, education, and business services require average or above-average social and analytical skills. They're also on the upswing in terms of job growth, and are known to pay better wages than work that requires more physical skills.
A majority of the workers in these positions, the survey discovered, were women.
"Because of the relatively higher wage associated with jobs requiring higher social or analytical skills, women's overrepresentation in these jobs may have helped narrow the gender wage gap," the study's authors write. A woman working full-time all year long earned $40,000 last year, compared to $30,402 in 1980. That's an increase of 32 percent.
Meanwhile, jobs that require physical skills or hard labor—like carpeting and welding—are mostly occupied by men, and these industries have seen little growth. As a result, the study reports, "full-time, year-round working men experienced a 3% loss in earnings as their median annual earnings fell from $51,684 in 1980 to $50,000 in 2015."
While the report does offer some encouragement, women still make about 20 percent less than men.
Maya Raghu is the director of workplace equality at the National Women's Law Center. "Certainly, we are happy to see progress; small steps are better than standing still," she tells Broadly, "but the fact is the wage gap has been stagnant for almost a decade."
She also points out that these numbers address the wage gap overall for women. "It's much worse for women of color," she says.
In fact, a report from the Economic Police Institute published last month reveals that the wage gap has increased for black women since 1979; they earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts.
While the Pew survey highlights employment growth in fields that demand social, communications ,and analytical skills, women don't necessarily have the option to go after these positions, Raghu says. "Women are still the primary caregivers in our country," she explains, "and so caregiving for children or family members can significantly impact women's 'choices' in terms of occupations they have access to or can actually take."
"It's a complex problem," she continues, "and there's no easy one solution."
The Pew report comes on the heels of what equal pay advocates touted as a victory last week. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that by March 2018, employers with 100 or more employees will be required to submit pay data by gender, race, and ethnicity. According to the civil rights organization Equal Rights Advocates, the move "will greatly increase pay transparency nationally."