Pay Gap Narrows, Households Suffer

Last Updated Sep 14, 2010 1:21 PM EDT

How's this for good news/bad news?

The gender pay gap finally narrows, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a first reported by USA Today.

Women now make 17.2% less, in aggregate, than men. That's huge progress from the 23.9% gap reported in 2000.

Everybody's going to focus on the sad fact that the gap closed because men are making less. Not only are they clustered in shrinking categories like manufacturing, but men were hard-hit by the widespread layoffs in construction. I hope that at least a few reports will celebrate how women have moved the needle for the right reasons: increasing their presence in traditionally male-dominated job categories, for instance. Technology is the only category that stubbornly resists women. (And no, it's not just a matter of personal choice, as some of my fellow Bnet bloggers assert. It's cultural, and subtle, and to imply that women aren't interested in delivering business results, and that investors are blind to any factor but return, is patently ridiculous, as numerous studies confirm.)

But wins for women are undermined by other factors. Here's the correct context for the wage-gap good news: that median household income continues to erode. Real median household income dropped 3.6% in just one year - from 2007 to 2008, according to the latest Census Bureau report.

While we need to recognize the genuine accomplishments of women overall, we must not overlook the story unfolding daily in American households. Family by family, gains of individual women are more than offset by wage cuts, rising benefit costs, and, yes, male unemployment and underemployment. Is it really progress if women strive harder, achieve more, and still cannot stop the backward slide of their families' financial stability?