The fight to close the pay gap has been slow going, an the end is nowhere in sight. According to the Labor Department, women earned 62 percent on a weekly basis of what men earned in 1979. As of 2010, that figure had grown to 81 percent. The Census Bureau puts that figure for annual earnings a little lower—full-time, year-round workers in 2010 earned nearly 78 percent of their male counterparts.
That can vary by place, however, with incomes in some parts of the country much closer to gender parity than in others. The factors that bring men's and women's salaries closer together can vary greatly, but one thing is clear: Especially in the wake of an economic crisis, gender income parity is not necessarily a good sign.
"The wage gap might be narrow because everybody earns reasonably much or because both men and women don't earn a lot," says Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Put another way, the gap can be small either because women are catching up to men or because men are slipping more than women. An analysis of Census data shows that the metro areas with the smallest wage gaps includes a couple of relatively high-earning cities, like New York City and San Francisco, are alongside places that were hit hard by the housing crisis, like Las Vegas and a few cities in Florida, as the cities with the smallest wage gaps. There may be a connection between that collapse of housing and a thinner pay gap.
"When you take away that major prop to prosperity, you also take away a heck of a lot of well-paying jobs," says Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. When the male-heavy construction industry languished in some regions, he says, so might have men's pay advantage over women, as those former builders sought out other, often lower-paying jobs.
According to data from the Census Bureau, these are the 10 metropolitan areas with the smallest pay gaps, as measured by incomes for full-time, year-round workers:
|Metropolitan Area||Male Median Earnings (Est.)||Female Median Earnings (Est.)||Females’ Earnings as a % of Males’|
|Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.||$44,953||$40,059||89.1|
|North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota, Fla.||41,226||34,915||84.5|
|New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, N.Y.-N.J.-Pa.||53,742||45,242||84.2|
|Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fla.||41,593||34,824||83.7|
|San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, Calif.||62,149||51,830||83.4|
|Lakeland-Winter Haven, Fla.||37,234||30,947||83.1|
|Las Vegas-Paradise, Nev.||43,024||35,370||82.2|
|Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla.||40,590||33,354||82.2|
|Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, Fla.||40,337||32,989||81.8|
Source: American Community Survey 2008-10.
Note: includes metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or greater, to minimize margins of error.
Of course, the issue of a relatively high or low general pay level is just one of many factors that can make a city's men and women more equal earners. The mix of a place's prominent industries can play a large part, too.
"If you have an area which depends a lot on tourism and retail, that typically doesn't have that high of pay for anybody," says Hegewisch. On the other hand, she says, cities with large shares of jobs in insurance, healthcare, and the public sector can have lower pay gaps, as women are well-represented in well-paying jobs in those industries.
Other demographic factors play into this complicated equation. The wage gap tends to be smaller among younger workers, so populations that skew older may have wider pay disparities. Race and ethnicity also can play a major part—wage gaps tend to be smaller among Hispanics and African-Americans than among non-Hispanic whites, which might contribute to heavily Hispanic cities in Florida having smaller pay differentials, for example.
Business environment can also count. "Unionization tends to flatten differences" in pay, says Catherine Hill, research director at the American Association of University Women. That means that pay gaps may be wider in "right-to-work" states, where laws stop union and employer agreements that would require workers to pay union dues. Meanwhile, non-right-to-work states, concentrated in the Northeast, around the Great Lakes, and on the West Coast, may have smaller wage gaps.
All of these, as well as broader factors--women taking time out from their careers to take care of children, for example--can contribute to the broader wage gap in the U.S. With all these forces at play, it's impossible to parse out exactly why one particular place might have a smaller wage gap than another, especially with one other unquantifiable factor at work:
"I have little doubt that there are some parts of the country where there's more zealous discrimination than others," says Burtless, "but you can't interpret difference as being a gauge of how much discrimination there is."
Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.