Expert Commentary

The opt-in revolution? Contraception and the gender gap in wages

2012 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) on oral contraceptive use and later declines in the gender wage gap.

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In the United States, women’s earnings rose from 60% of men’s earnings in 1979 to 69% in 1989. This increase was the result of cultural and legal developments in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibited gender discrimination in the workplace. Other significant factors include the women’s rights movements, as well as the ability for younger women to delay having children, according to a 2012 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study, “The Opt-In Revolution? Contraception and the Gender Gap in Wages,” examines how access to oral contraception — more commonly known as “the Pill” — may have affected women’s wages over time and narrowed the gender wage gap in the 1980s and early 1990s. Researchers used birth cohort data and supplemental survey data to determine the extent to which changing the legal age of consent from 21 to 18 allowed younger, typically unmarried women access to the Pill, and how this early access was reflected in women’s employment, educational attainment and earnings in subsequent decades.

Key study highlights include:

  • Access to the Pill at age 18 “lowered women’s wages in their early twenties (corresponding to the 1970s), but raised their wages in their thirties and forties (corresponding to the 1980s and 1990s).”
  • “By their late forties, women with early access to the Pill earned a statistically significant hourly premium of 8 percent … or 63 cents more per hour and roughly 2,200 dollars more per year.” The researchers suggest that these wage gains can be largely attributed to the accrual of more work experience.
  • Women who had early access to the Pill attended 0.18 more years of school by their late forties than their counterparts without early access to the Pill.
  • “The fraction of women working in professional or managerial jobs in their mid-thirties was roughly twice as high for cohorts born in the mid-1940s as for cohorts born a decade earlier…. Women’s representation in these fields at age 30 increased by 25 percentage points between the cohorts born in the early and late 1940s and another 24 percentage  points for cohorts born in the early 1950s.”
  • Women with mid-range and higher IQ scores who had early access to the Pill saw the largest wage increases; women with mid-range IQs who had early Pill access saw their wages grow 20% at ages 30 to 49. Early access to the Pill conferred negligible benefits, however, for women in the lower third of the IQ distribution.
  • While early access to the Pill cannot solely account for the reduction of the gender wage gap, “10 percent of the narrowing in the gender gap during the 1980s and 31 percent during the 1990s can be attributed to early access to the Pill.”

Today, a greater percentage of young women are earning college degrees and pursuing well-paying careers than their male counterparts. The authors conclude that “the Pill’s power to transform childbearing from probabilistic to planned shifted women’s career decisions and compensation for decades to come.”

Tags: employment, women and work

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