Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Local Gender-Based Earnings Inequality and Women’s Belief in the American Dream

The forthcoming article “Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Local Gender-Based Earnings Inequality and Women’s Belief in the American Dream” by Benjamin J. Newman is summarized by the author here:

From President Obama’s State of the Union address to Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech at the Oscar’s, the persistent gap in pay between men and women has become a salient issue on the political reform agenda in America.  While the failure of Republican members of Congress to stand and issue applause following Obama’s call for an equal-pay law may be a sign of contention among political elites over pay equalization, the majority of American citizens—democrat and republican alike—believe that paying men and women equal pay for equal work is an important issue.  Over the past decade we have seen a rapid growth in research in political science on the causes and consequences income inequality.  While political scientists have paid considerable attention to the reaction of citizens to general income inequality, less attention has been paid to inequality in earnings between men and women.

One interesting feature of reality of the gender pay gap in the U.S. is the striking variation that exists in this type of inequality in local labor markets throughout the country.  At the national level, the ratio of median earnings for men and women is roughly 77 cents to the dollar; however, when looking at this ratio across U.S. counties, data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that in some locales, such as Glasscock Co., TX and Dagget Co., UT, the average woman earns as little as 19 cents for every dollar earned by a man, while on the other end of the spectrum, there are counties in the U.S., such as Glades Co., FL or Mora Co., NM, where the average woman earns 1.20 or 1.70 for every dollar earned by the average man.  This variation is striking, and begs the question of whether the political views of American women are in some way responsive to such variation in gender pay inequality.

In my recently published article entitled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Local Gender-Based Earnings Inequality and Women’s Belief in the American Dream,” I present a map that displays this variation in gender pay inequality in counties through the U.S., and ask the critical question:  Does the level of earnings inequality between men and women in women’s local area influence their level of belief in the American Dream?  Utilizing multiple nationally representative surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, I find that individual American women’s belief in a core tenet of the American Dream—the doctrine that hard work and determination will translate into financial success—is systematically tied to the level of earnings inequality between men and women in their county of residence.  This relationship, however, is quite nuanced, and follows a pattern suggested by “rising expectations” theory, which is a brand of relative deprivation theory. Specifically, I find that individual women’s disillusionment with the American Dream is highest when they reside in counties where the average women’s earnings represent three-quarters, or 75 cents to the dollar, of the earnings of men.  Thus, rather than disillusionment being highest in counties where women’s earnings lag far behind those of men, it is most pronounced in counties where women’s earnings place them close to, but still an arm’s length behind, those of men.  Interestingly, I find that in counties where women’s earnings on average have achieved or surpassed parity with men, individual women’s belief in the American Dream is greatly restored.  In other words, in locales where women earn incomes equal to or exceeding men, individual women in these contexts believe the American Dream is alive and well.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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