I think a big reason is the sheer volume of hours worked. In 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey, men with full-time jobs worked an 8.3 hour workday. Comparable women worked 7.5 hours. That's an 0.8 hour difference, which may not sound huge, but it's about 10% of total hours worked. So that would explain about half the pay gap.
But if you buy my (partial) explanation, then there's some good news on the horizon. Women are starting to close this time gap. In 2010, according to numbers just released by the BLS, women with full-time jobs worked a 7.8 hour workday, and men worked 8.2 hours. In other words, the gap is half as large.
Will the pay gap start shrinking in response? It's hard to know -- and some of this may just be statistical noise. But it's an intriguing idea. Perhaps given the economic uncertainty of the past few years, more women have decided to go "all in" to the workforce, putting in the extra hours on the margins that tend to get rewarded with raises and promotions. If that's true, over time we should start to see some movement on the chunk of the pay gap that can be explained by work hours.
The discrimination factor, alas, will probably still be with us.
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