The number of women with six-figure incomes is rising at a much faster pace than it is for men. Nationwide, about one in 18 women working full time earned $100,000 or more in 2009, a jump of 14 per cent over two years, according to new census figures. In contrast, one in seven men made that much, up just 4 per cent.
The swelling ranks of well-paid women workers are largely attributable to almost three decades of growth in the number of women with the academic credentials to land good jobs. Women now outnumber men at almost every level of higher education, with three women attending college and graduate school for every two men. They get more master’s degrees and more PhDs. Most law school students are women, as are almost half of all medical students.
"We're finally bearing the fruit from women getting so much higher education in the United States," said Robert Drago, director of research at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. "It's the result of women entering into professional managerial careers."
But women's advocates and groups representing professional women cautioned that a wage gap between the sexes remains stubbornly persistent, and women are sparsely represented at the upper echelons of business. Just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
"I'm happy to know there's another dollar in the pocket of a woman," said Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst, a group that works to improve business opportunities for women. "It's expected, as women get more education, that they'll earn more. But women have been getting these degrees for a long time. And they're still hitting a glass ceiling."
The gains that women continue to make in the workplace have come amid the worst recession in decades - a downturn that has been particularly harsh for men.
Median pay and hours worked fell twice as much for men as for women. The share of workers earning $50,000 and up was flat for men, but rose by 5 percent for women.
Those figures represent an economy in which manufacturing and construction, with more male workers than women, is declining while there has been growth in jobs requiring the higher education at which women excel.
"Before this recession, unemployment rates for men and women used to go together," said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist who heads the Center for Employment Policy at the Hudson Institute. "Over the past two years, they've diverged."
The full-time workforce remains predominantly male, with 56 million men and 42 million women. Only a relatively small segment of either sex has passed the $100,000 benchmark — about 2.4 million working women and 7.9 million men earn that much.
Some analysts believe the gap between men and women who are earning more than $100,000 will narrow further in the future, at least for one group.
A report earlier this year from a consumer marketing firm found that unmarried women in their 20s who are childless and work in cities have caught up with or are ahead of young men living in all but a handful of the nation's largest metropolitan regions.
In Washington, the discrepancy between young women and men in comparable situations is not so noticeable, though it is otherwise the epitome of a city that attracts young women graduates, said James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, which issued the report analyzing three years of census data.
"D.C. is a talent magnet for young women," he said. "It's a city that runs more on cognitive skills than it does on physical strength."
Women make up more than four out of 10 of the federal government's civilian employees who rank high enough to earn $100,000 or more, according to Federally Employed Women, which advocates policies on their behalf.
The Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia has about 700 dues-paying members. Lawyers are drawn to the city because it offers so many different kinds of jobs, said the group's president, Holly Loiseau.
"There are government positions, nonprofits, law firms that are small, medium and large, and positions in-house," she said. "It's been a place of good opportunity for lawyers in general, and for women, too."
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