Expert Commentary

State policies and gender earnings inequality in the United States

2010 study in The Sociological Quarterly on how work environments and social policies may impact the gender wage gap.


Research has shown that women’s wages in the United States can vary considerably depending on age, race, education level, and geographic location. Overall, however, women continue to earn substantially less than men for performing the same work, including in top management positions.

A 2010 study in The Sociological Quarterly examined how state policies may contribute to the gender wage gap. “State Policies and Gender Earnings Inequality: A Multilevel Analysis of 50 U.S. States Based on U.S. Census 2000 Data” looked at institutional environments and social policies to determine what effect they might have on women’s wages. States’ institutional environments were measured using a variety of factors, including politicians’ voting records and voters’ preferences. Social policies included those governing family and medical leave as well as the size of the public social-service sector, which is typically characterized by “‘female friendly’ employment conditions.”

Key findings include:

  • The more progressive a state’s institutional environment, the smaller the gender gap in earnings. Women workers in more progressive states “face less earnings penalties … by about 5.33% of the average gender earnings gap,” compared with women workers in more conservative states.
  • The pay gap for women workers in states with large public social-service sectors is larger than that for those in states with small public social-service sectors.
  • Women working in progressive state institutional environments are “more likely to be employed in managerial occupations and less likely to be channeled into female-typed occupations.”
  • “State governments usually provide jobs for social services such as health, welfare and education, and these positions attract more female employees than male employees. However, the consequences of these employment patterns are not beneficial for female employees in that occupations in these sectors pay less than do other sectors of the labor market.”
  • Whether or not more women are hired in managerial positions does not appear dependent on environments where earnings are more equal generally. In other words, the “net odds of females employed in managerial occupations is not significantly associated with the gender gap in earnings.”

The author concludes that, while states with progressive institutional environments saw higher earnings for women, women working in states with large public social-service sectors saw lower earnings. The study recommends further investigation to “map out distinct dimensions of welfare state intervention and their impact on gender stratification in labor market opportunities and rewards.”

Tags: women and work

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