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Gender pay gap is the smallest yet, but don't rejoice

The good news for American workers is the gender pay gap -- the phenomenon of women earning less than men for doing the same job -- is the narrowest it's ever been.

The bad news? The gap remains wide: Women who work full-time still earn 21 percent less than men who are also employed full-time, according to data released on Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Women are making about 79 cents to every $1 earned by men, or about one penny more than they did in 2013. That marks the smallest pay gap between the genders since 1960, when Census started tracking the data. Back then, women earned just 61 cents for every $1 men got. But even as the gender pay gap is narrowing, the truth is women haven't seen much progress during the post-recession years.

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Back in 2006, the year before the slump started, women earned 77 cents for every $1 men earned, for example. In the intervening years, more workplaces and policymakers have sought to address the disparity with measures such as providing more transparency in how workers are paid and California's Fair Pay Act.

Pope Francis has called the gender pay gap a "pure scandal" and President Obama has vowed to address the problem.

So far, it's not clear if those efforts have had any effect. The median income for American women who work full-time stood at $39,621 last year, only 1 percent higher than a decade earlier. That means the past 1o years have left women's pay stagnant.

If their paychecks aren't getting any bigger, why is the pay gap narrowing? The answer isn't any more reassuring: Men have lost ground in the past 10 years.

Men who work full-time brought home $50,383 in 2014, about 1.5 percent less than they earned in 2004. (All annual pay figures have been adjusted for inflation.)

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While that's helped narrow the gap, it's not really a solution to the problem. Most women would rather see their pay reach equity with men, rather than to have men's wages dip down to theirs. For the economy as a whole, it's also bad news, given that stagnating and declining earnings have been a drag on the post-recession years.

Of course, the gender pay gap also partly reflects the occupational choices that men and women make. Even so, research has found that women face lower earnings even when compared with men who have the same college major and are employed in the same job, although that gap is only 3 cents on the dollar, much less than the national gender pay gap.

Still, women often hit a pay wall when they enter their mid-career years, just when they should be earning the most. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that women's earnings fall off when they reach their mid-30s to mid-40s, which the economists said could be due to discrimination or because women are taking time out of their careers to raise families.

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