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The Earnings Gap Between Male and Female Workers: An Historical Perspective


  • Claudia Goldin


Has economic progress increased the relative earnings of females to males over the long run? Evidence on trends in the earnings gap for the last four decades appears to run counter to this hypothesis. Numerous data sources are used in this paper to piece together a 170-year history of the earnings of females relative to those of males and the variables that determine earnings in the market place. In brief, the constancy of the earnings gap from the 1950s is a short-run phenomenon and cannot be extrapolated into the more distant past.The ratio of female to male earnings in the economy as a whole rosefrom just over 0.45 to just under 0.60 during 1890 to 1930. It rose to just over 0.60 by 1950 but has been virtnally stable from then, declining somewhat during the early to mid-fifties and rising after 1981. The ratio in the manufacturing sector rose from about 0.35 in 1820, to 0.50 in 1850, and to 0.58 in 1930. Advances in the labor market experience of the female working population account for 24 percent of the increase in the earnings ratio over the 1890 to 1940 period. Increases in the returns to education and, to a lesser extent, in educational attainment, account for about 40 percent of the increase from 1890 to 1970. It is also possible that the decreased return to physical attributes (such as strength) accounts for another 28 percent of the increase in the female to male earnings ratio. The various factors considered account for about 85 percent of the entire increase in the ratio from 1890 to 1970 (some factors served to decrease the ratio). The constancy of the gender gap from the 1950s is a function of the increased labor force participation of women which served to stabilize the work experience of the working population of women and to make the future lightly unpredictable for many cohorts.

Suggested Citation

  • Claudia Goldin, 1986. "The Earnings Gap Between Male and Female Workers: An Historical Perspective," NBER Working Papers 1888, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:1888
    Note: DAE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Goldin, Claudia, 1980. "The Work and Wages of Single Women, 1870 to 1920," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 40(01), pages 81-88, March.
    2. Mincer, Jacob & Polachek, Solomon, 1974. "Family Investment in Human Capital: Earnings of Women," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 82(2), pages 76-108, Part II, .
    3. Mary Corcoran & Greg J. Duncan, 1979. "Work History, Labor Force Attachment, and Earnings Differences between the Races and Sexes," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 14(1), pages 3-20.
    4. Oaxaca, Ronald, 1973. "Male-Female Wage Differentials in Urban Labor Markets," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 14(3), pages 693-709, October.
    5. Polachek, Solomon William, 1975. "Differences in Expected Post-school Investments as a Determinant of Market Wage Differentials," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 16(2), pages 451-470, June.
    6. Eichengreen, Barry, 1984. "Experience and the Male—Female Earnings Gap in the 1890s," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 44(03), pages 822-834, September.
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    Cited by:

    1. Havet, Nathalie, 2004. "Écarts salariaux et disparités professionnelles entre sexes : développements théoriques et validité empirique," L'Actualité Economique, Société Canadienne de Science Economique, vol. 80(1), pages 5-39, Mars.
    2. Rassou R., 1993. "Statistical measurement of gender wage differentials," ILO Working Papers 992920693402676, International Labour Organization.
    3. Robert Collender & Sherrill Shaffer, 2009. "Banking structure and employment growth," Applied Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 41(19), pages 2403-2417.

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