Are we there yet?

By almost every measure, women earn significantly less than men in similar demographics.

By Alexandria McMahon and Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Correspondent | Globe Staff / October 24, 2010

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Sarah Southard is both an exception and the rule.

Like many young women with no husband or children, the 27-year-old nurse practitioner at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center makes as much or more money than most of her male peers. But she’s also an anomaly: Women overall earn 23 percent less than men.

“It is how much experience you have, not so much male or female,’’ the Newton resident said. “Culturally, women are taught to expect to be treated equal and are more likely to stand up for that.’’

Almost five decades after a federal law required equal pay for equal work among the sexes, the youngest generation of women is matching — and exceeding — the salaries of their male counterparts. Single women ages 22 to 30 with no children earn 8 percent more than comparable men, according to 2008 Census data crunched by the New York research firm Reach Advisors. These women outearn men in 39 of the 50 largest cities, and equal the pay of their male counterparts in eight others, including Boston, the nation’s 10th largest metropolitan area.

“This is a major shift that has gone on,’’ said James Chung, president of Reach Advisors.

But the progress doesn’t seem to last as workers age and start families. Census data show that when full-time workers of all ages are factored in — regardless of marital status or whether they have children — women made 77 cents for every $1 men earned in 2009.

The fact that young, single, urban women are outearning their male counterparts, said Catherine Hill, director of research at the American Association of University Women, is only part of the story.

“It’s been used in the headlines in ways that are misleading,’’ she said.

Hill said women fall even farther behind as they advance in their careers. One year out of college, women make about 80 percent as much as their male colleagues, according to Hill’s 2007 study “Behind the Pay Gap.’’ Ten years later, they earn 69 percent of what men earn.

Part of this disparity can be explained by the jobs men and women choose, which colleges they attend, where they live, the number of hours they work a week, whether or not they have kids, and how much time they take out of the workforce to raise them. But it doesn’t explain the entire gap.

Of the 31 percent difference in pay between men and women a decade after college, 12 percent of it is unaccounted for, Hill said. This could mean that women don’t negotiate as strongly for pay raises, she said, or there’s discrimination — hiring managers who think, subconsciously or not, that men make better leaders or that women shouldn’t be promoted because they’re going to leave the workforce to raise children.

“There is an unintentional bias that blinds many people to seeing the potential and the capacity that women bring,’’ said Ilene H. Lang, president of Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to expand opportunities for women.

Indeed, Catalyst found that not even an advanced degree wipes out the wage gap. A study by the organization found that recent female MBA graduates made $4,600 less a year than their male counterparts, even after experience, industry, and region were taken into account. And once this trend is established at the beginning of their careers, women can’t catch up.

Lang said the only way to make the pay gap go away is for companies to realize that compensating women fairly will attract the most talented employees — and give them a competitive advantage. “Companies that make a priority of being the employer of choice for women are going to win big time,’’ she said.

Lisa Pirozzolo, a partner in the Boston office of law firm WilmerHale, said she knows that firsthand. At WilmerHale, lawyers used to follow the same rigid career path, with promotions given at set times — which meant women who were trying to raise a family could be passed over. But the firm changed its promotion process to give its lawyers more time to move through the ranks, giving women and men more time to develop their skills.

It seems to be working: This year, the firm promoted more women than men nationwide, including five of its nine new partners. The change in policy is necessary to level the playing field, Pirozzolo said.

“If women get off track, it’s hard in the legal profession to get back on track and have your pay be comparable to your male peers that you started out with,’’ she said.

But for young women who are childless and single, the odds seem to be better that their pay will equal or exceed their male colleagues. In a recent conversation with three of her female friends, Megan Flood, a single, 27-year-old sales director of fixed investment for John Hancock, was surprised to discover that her female friends — like her — outearn their male friends.

“It is a nice indication of how far we have come,’’ said the Beacon Hill resident.

Flood declined to give details about her earnings, but said that she had the opportunity to make a six-figure salary within a year of graduating from Babson College with a bachelor’s in business administration in 2005. Since then, she has had four promotions.

Flood said she’s an asset to companies because she is young, single, and doesn’t have children. “I know I can give 110 percent. I have no distractions, and I market myself on that,’’ she said. “I see no reason why my subset would not continue to outearn male counterparts.’’

Rachel Hughes, 27, makes a six-figure salary as a senior consultant at the New York advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, a position she was recruited for after earning an MBA from Simmons College in August. Hughes said the degree helped when she was negotiating a salary and benefits package that ultimately gave her a 40 percent boost. She said that puts her on par with her male peers.

Still, even Hughes said that she has witnessed the disparities in pay between men and women. In fact, the East Bridgewater native said she decided to get an advanced degree after realizing that many women in her previous job made less than men in comparable positions.

“Through education, I felt empowered to get what I was worth,’’ Hughes said. “Ten years down the road I hope to continue in the trajectory upwards.’’

Sasha DuBois, a 25-year-old registered nurse working in Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s patient medical unit, thinks her generation will continue to stay ahead of the pay game. She said she has seen women her age consistently take on higher degrees, top positions, and more responsibilities.

“Women are on the move,’’ said the Dorchester resident, who is member of Massachusetts Nurses Association union and makes between $60,000 and $70,000 a year — equal to her male counterparts.

Alexandria McMahon can be reached at amcmahon, Katie Johnston Chase at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.