Work interruptions and the female-male earnings gap Essay

Differences in labor force attachment, or the extent of work
interruptions, are often cited as one of the main reasons women earn
less than men. However, a recent study by the Bureau of the Census reports that work interruptions explain only a small part of the
earnings disparity between men and women. According to the report, if
women had the same experience, interruptions, and education as men, the
earnings gap would be reduced by only 14.6 percent.

The report is based on data from the 1979 Income Survey Development
Program, which covered persons ages 21 to 64 who had ever worked.
Participants were surveyed at 3-month intervals during a year and a half
beginning in February 1979. The survey measured the extent of work
interruptions by sex, race and Hispanic origin, years of school
completed, occupations, and age and marital status. Surveyed persons
were asked if they had ever been away from work for 6 months or longer
because of inability to find work, caring for home or family, or illness
or disability.

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Sex and race. About 72 percent of the women surveyed had worked
interruptions, compared with about 26 percent of the men. Approximately
65 percent of the women and 2 percent of the men responded that they
were “caring for home or family.” “Inability to find
work” was reported by 14 percent of the women with interruptions
and about 17 percent of the men. There was no significant difference in
the proportions of women and men with disability or illness

Black women had fewer work interruptions than white and
Hispanic-origin women, but were more likely to have interruptions due to
illness. White and Hispanic-origin women were more likely to interrupt work because of family responsibilities; 67 percent of the white women
and 62 percent of the Hispanic-origin women, compared with 44 percent of
the black women. The labor force interruption rates for white and
Hispanic-origin women were generally the same, except twice as many
Hispanic-origin women cited “inability to find work.”

Overall, black men had higher interruption rates than white men.
About 35 percent of the black men had interruptions due to an inability
to find work, compared with 15 percent of the white men. The proportions
for Hispanic-origin men were similar to those of white men.

Educational attainment. Higher educational attainment was related
to fewer work interruptions. Specifically, the proportion of persons
with work interruptions because of inability to find work decreased as
the educational level increased. For example, 25 percent of the men who
did not graduate from high school experienced such work interruptions,
compared with only 8 percent of those who graduated from college. (For
women, the rates were 22 and 9 percent, respectively.) About two-thirds
of women with less than a college education had work interruptions due
to family responsibilities, compared with about half of those who
graduated from college.

Occupation. Among women in white-collar occupations, those who
were in professional, technical, or kindred fields were less likely to
have interruptions due to family or home care than those who were in
sales or clerical jobs. However, for each occupational group, women
were more likely than men to have work interruptions. Among
professional, technical, and managerial workers, the interruption rate
was 6 percent for women, compared with 15 percent for men.

Age and marital status. About 43 percent of women ages 21 to 29
had work interruptions due to family reasons compared with about 73
percent of women age 30 and over. Comparable figures for men were about
1.5 percent for those ages 21 to 29 and about 1.6 percent for those 30
and over. The interruption rates due to illness or disability were
highest among women ages 45 to 64 (16 percent), and lowest for those
under age 30 (4 percent). The proportions of disability interruptions
among men were generally similar to those of women.

The interruption rate for women ages 21 to 29 who had never married
was 21 percent for those without children and 44 percent for those with
children. For never-married women ages 30 to 44, the rates ranged from
33 percent for those without children to 47 percent for those with
children. For women who were presently married or had been married at
some time, the rates were 33 percent for those without children and 81
percent for those with children.

The report, “Lifetime Work Experience and Its Effect on
Earnings: Retrospective Data From the 1979 Income Survey Development
Program,” U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports,
Series p–23, No. 136, is for sale ($1.75) by the Superintendent of
Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.


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