How the Pill Changed Women’s Wages

April 02, 2012

With Equal Pay Day on April 17 just two weeks away, I am struggling to wrap my head around the fact that in 2012, women’s earnings still are not on par with men’s — even though women make up more than half of U.S. college graduates and nearly half of those graduating from law, medical, and business schools. Women are clearly well educated, so why do those who are working full time earn only 77 percent as much as their male counterparts?

It’s equally mind boggling that in this same year, more than three decades after the pill became available to unmarried women, we are still debating women’s access to birth control. Here are two issues that women before us thought would be resolved by now, and yet there is so much work left to do.

On a superficial level, people might not make the connection between the current birth control controversy and women’s wages, especially if, like Rush Limbaugh, they twist the rhetoric to focus on women’s sexuality. After all, how could “paying for women to have sex” have any effect on their paychecks? But access to birth control and the ability to make reproductive choices has a great effect on our participation in the economy, our work life, and especially on our wages. In fact, a recent study proposes that access to birth control at a younger age is what has helped boost women’s earnings and narrow the gender pay gap.

The pill didn’t just help shrink the pay gap — it did so by a significant percentage. The same study estimates that the pill helped shrink the pay gap by 10 percent in the 1980s and 30 percent in the 1990s. Those are considerable numbers.

The logic makes sense — access to the pill meant that women had the option to delay marriage and childbearing to pursue work and education. While the payoff was not immediate, investing in school and a career meant that women were able to gain the skills and labor experience needed for higher-paying jobs. In this specific study, the authors found that women who were in their twenties in the 1970s and gained access to the pill initially experienced a decrease in wages but saw an increase when they reached their 30s and 40s. In fact, by age 50, women who had early access to birth control ended up with an 8 percent premium on their hourly wages.

The study has received considerable press, as it well should. The findings show that reproductive freedom has a real and measurable impact not just on women’s lives but also on our economy and the labor force. So what would happen if we restricted reproductive freedom? Frankly, I’d hate to find out — and hopefully, we won’t have to.

This post was written by AAUW Research Intern Julie Smolinski.

AAUWguest By:   |   April 02, 2012

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