The fact that the average American working woman earns only about 8o% of what the average American working man earns has been something of a festering sore for at least half the population for several decades. And despite many programs and analyses and hand wringing and badges and even some legislation, the figure hasn’t budged much in the last five years.
But now there’s evidence that the ship may finally be turning around: according to a new analysis of 2,000 communities by a market research company, in 147 out of 150 of the biggest cities in the U.S., young women’s median full-time salaries are 8% higher than those of the guys in their peer group. In two cities, Atlanta and Memphis, those women are making around 20% more. This squares with earlier research from Queens College, New York, that had suggested that this was happening in major metropoles. But the new study suggests that the gap is bigger than thought, with young women in New York City, Los Angles and San Diego making 17%, 12% and 15% more than their male peers respectively. And it also holds true even in reasonably small cities like Raleigh Durham, N.C., Charlotte, N.C., (both 14% more) and Jacksonville, Florida (6%). (See TIME’s special report on the state of the American woman.)
Here’s the slightly deflating caveat: this reverse gender gap, as it’s known, applies only to unmarried, childless women under 30 who live in cities. The rest of the women-even those of the same age who are married or don’t live in a major metropolitan areas- are still on the less scenic side of the wage divide.
The figures come from James Chung of Reach Advisors, who has spent more than a year analyzing data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. He attributes the earnings reversal overwhelmingly to one factor: education. For every two guys who graduate college or get a higher degree, three women do. This is almost the exact opposite of the graduation ratio that existed when baby boomers entered college. Studies have consistently shown that a college degree pays off in much higher wages over a lifetime, and even in many cases for entry level positions. “These women haven’t just caught up with the guys,” says Chung. “In many cities, they’re clocking them.”
Chung also claims that, as far women’s pay is concerned, not all cities are created equal. Having pulled data on 2,000 communities and cross referenced the demographic information with the wage gap figures, he found that the cities where women earned more than men had at least one of three characteristics. Some, like New York City or Los Angeles, have primary local industries that are knowledge-based. Others were manufacturing towns whose industries have shrunk, especially smaller ones like Erie, PA or Terre Haute, IN Still others, like Miami or Monroe, La, had a majority minority population. (Hispanic and black women are twice as likely to graduate college than their male peers). (See top top 10 female leaders.)
Significantly, the conditions that are feeding the rise in female wages-a growing knowledge-based economy, an increasing minority population and the decline of a manufacturing base-are dominant trends throughout the U.S. “This generation [of women] has adapted to the fundamental restructuring of the American economy better than their older predecessors or male peers,” says Chung. While women’s economic advantage sometimes evaporates as they age and have familes, Chung believes women may have enough leverage that their financial gains may not be completely erased as they get older.
The holdout cities-those where single college-educated young women’s earnings still lag men’s-tended to be built around industries that are heavily male dominated such as software development or military technology contractors. In other words, Silicon Valley could also be called Gender Gap Gully.
As for the somewhat depressing caveat that the findings only held true for women who were childless and single: it’s not their marital status that was putting the squeeze on their income. Rather, highly-educated women tend to marry and have children later. Thus the women who earn the most in their 20s are usually single and childless.
The rise of female economic power is by no means limited to the U.S., nor necessarily to the young. Late last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that for the first time women made up the majority of the workforce in highly paid managerial positions. The change in the status quo has been marked enough that several erstwhile women’s advocates have started to voice concerns about how to get more men to go to college. Is there an equivalent to Title IX for men?