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Joan C. Williams's picture

Co-written with Katherine Ullman.

Joan once wrote that the way for women to gain equality was to die childless at thirty, based on data that young women without kids earn almost as much as men. Turns out even that won't guarantee equality.

new report released last week by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) finds that the average female college graduate working full-time makes nearly $8,000 less than her male counterpart--only one year after graduation.

This is an astounding figure. One would assume that the income gap between the men and women studied in this report--recent college graduates just barely out of school--would be miniscule. These men and women have a great deal in common. They are unlikely to be married, have relatively little work experience, and typically have no caregiving responsibilities. As workers, they seem relatively equal--and yet they aren't being paid equally.

Guess it's not the end of men after all. Two champions of this perspective, Hanna Rosin (author of The End of Men) and Liza Mundy (author of The Richer Sex), frequently cite the statistic that women are better educated, or more likely to be educated, than men. The logic, we assume, goes something like this: educational attainment is predictor of wealth, and if we have more educated women than we have men, we therefore have more rich women than we do men. Et voilà! The end of men, the rise of women! Gender inequality for all!

This logic rests on the assumption that the value of a degree is the same no matter who holds it. But that assumption is false from the instant of graduation on. And the pay gap doesn't disappear with time; it gets bigger for the women you would think would be most advantaged by their educations: Harvard graduates. Economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, who studied Harvard alumni, found a $72,500 gender gap in median income between all men and women, and a $75,000 difference in median income between men and women who worked full-time full-year. Even after controlling for educational performance, occupation, and time out of work, "a residual gap of substantial magnitude remains."

So it's not the end of men. In fact, what we have on our hand is not so much a story about gender as it is a story about class.

We've always had economic inequality in the United States, but what we've seen recently is that the rich are getting richer as the poor are growing poorer. As this inequality increases, the middle class--particularly the men--are slipping into the kinds of problems that used to be the province of the poor.

At the lower tiers of the economic distribution, women are faring better than they were in the past, while men are doing worse and worse. This is in large part due to the fact that working class men have been most negatively affected by the changes in the economy. Their jobs, mainly in manufacturing, have disappeared, while fields populated by working-class women, like health care, are booming. But the pink-collar jobs typically held by women tend to offer low pay and little advancement. That's why household incomes for the bottom 80% of Americans have seen little increase in take-home pay since the late 1970s.

Working class men may be embattled but elite men are doing just peachy. They still control both the government and the economy: they hold 82.8% of the seats in congress, and run 96.2% of Fortune 500 companies. This is not evidence of the rise of women. It's evidence that elite men maintain a vice grip on the way we live today, while non-elite men, and middle class families, fall further and further behind.

So here's our take. If the key to the illusive "American Dream" is a college education, so long as a college diploma is worth more in a young man's hand, gender equality remains beyond our reach--and no amount of happy-talk will change that.

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