Although women have made significant gains in education and income during the past three decades, the pay gap between college-educated men and women continues to widen in the years after graduation, experts say.
A new report to be released today by the American Association of University Women sheds light on what is holding back many female graduates and what they can do to catch up.
The gender gap will remain until more women pursue careers in science and engineering, women become tougher negotiators, and employers do more to accommodate the needs of mothers with young children, said Catherine Hill, research director for the Washington-based group that promotes education equity.
"We also need to take a hard look at sex discrimination in the workplace, which is affecting young women just as it affected their mothers and grandmothers," she said.
Previous studies have found that more women than men are earning college degrees and that the salaries of college-educated women have risen faster than those of male graduates. Still, like other researchers, Hill and her colleagues found that an income gap persists.
Analyzing U.S. Department of Education data on 19,000 men and women, Hill's team found that one year out of college, women in 1994 earned 80 percent of what their male counterparts made. By 2003, a decade after graduation, they had fallen further behind, to 69 percent of men's incomes.
Controlling for the number of hours worked, parenthood and other factors, college-educated women still earned 12 percent less than their male peers, according to the report, suggesting that "the effects of gender discrimination are cumulative."
Students' individual choices explain part of the gap, Hill said. Engineering and computer-science majors typically command higher salaries than those with education or English degrees. Those technical fields draw fewer women than men nationwide - 18 percent of undergraduate engineering majors and 39 percent of mathematics majors were women in 2000, according to the Department of Education.
Even among those with the same technical degree, such as mathematics, women graduates often become teachers, earning less than men who move into industry, Hill said.
The authors urge colleges to encourage women to consider scientific and technological majors and to aim for higher-earning jobs in those fields.
Hill's study also advises female job-seekers to drive tougher bargains on pay and responsibilities, and urges employers to offer high-quality part-time jobs to accommodate working mothers.
The findings are consistent with analyses of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, said Jean Ross, executive director of California Budget Project, a Sacramento, Calif.-based nonprofit research group.
In a study released in March, Ross found the median hourly pay for California men with bachelor's degrees was $31.03 in 2006, while women with the same degree earned $24.75.
The pay gap is narrowest among workers without a high-school degree; those women earn 84.1 percent of men's salaries. In that group, Ross said, women's earnings have risen while men's have declined slightly, reflecting the concentration of women in fast-growing sectors such as health care and financial services, and the continuing decline in manufacturing jobs long dominated by men.
Hill and her colleagues argue that tougher legislation also is needed to erase the pay gap. The American Association of University Women is backing two bills before Congress that would require equal pay for comparable but not identical jobs, and eliminate provisions allowing some employers to discipline workers who discuss their wages with a co-worker.
"Legislation has made a difference in the past," Hill said.
It wasn't so long ago that law schools and medical schools could bar women from enrolling, she said, or fire women who became pregnant.
"That's no longer true," she said.
Molly Selvin writes for the Los Angeles Times.