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U.S. progress on women's equality seen slowing as pay gains stall

by Matthew Lavietes | @mattlavietes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 30 March 2020 19:00 GMT

Thousands of people participate in the Third Annual Women's March at Freedom Plaza in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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Since 1990, strides towards gender equality in the U.S. have stalled

By Matthew Lavietes

NEW YORK, March 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Progress towards gender equality has stalled in the United States over the last three decades as growth in women's pay and the proportion of women in the workforce plateaued, a landmark study published on Monday found.

Analysis of U.S. data over the last 50 years by New York University (NYU) found that while the women have made dramatic advances since 1970, the pace of gains has slowed in recent decades.

"Since 1970 up to the present, there's been really dramatic increase in gender equality in a lot of different indicators – that's the good news," the study's senior author Paula England told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"The bad news is, on virtually every indicator, there's been a slowdown or a complete stall of progress since about 1990."

England likened the achievements of the 1970s and 1980s to picking the "low-hanging fruit" and said the rest would take longer because it required "deeper cultural and institutional change".

The average earnings of women working full-time rose from 61% of men's in 1970 to 74% in 1990, but progress then slowed, the study found. By 2018, women's median earnings were still worth only 83% of men's.

Meanwhile, the proportion of U.S. women in paid work increased from just under half in 1970 to 75% in 2000, but has since declined slightly, hitting 73% in 2018.

The researchers attributed the drop to losses in employment during the 2008 recession, saying the figure had fallen to 69% before rebounding to current levels.

Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families, cautioned against becoming disheartened by the data, saying they showed significant legal, cultural and policy changes.

"The data do show that stall, but point us to the kind of things we need to double down on to really fix this problem," she said.

The U.S. government passed several of the most influential provisions on women's rights in modern history in the 1970s.

These included the Education Amendments, which banned discrimination in academic activities on the basis of sex, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.

However, more recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up a major abortion rights case that could pave the way for states to prohibit abortion at the state-level. The ruling will be made in June.

England, who is a professor of sociology at NYU, said social and cultural change had not always kept pace with legislative shifts.

"The change has been a one-way street," she said. "For every hour women added to the workforce, men didn't add to household work."

She said while there was now less overt discrimination - such as employers refusing to hire women into specific roles - more insidious versions persisted.

"I think there is a lot of bias in the workplace that is more subtle and harder to pinpoint that affects things like who gets a bigger raise or the promotion," she said. (Reporting by Matthew Lavietes; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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