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Nov. 23--Women narrowed the pay gap with men in Massachusetts and the nation last year, but they still earn only about 80 percent of male workers, the Labor Department reported yesterday.
In Massachusetts, median weekly earnings of women were 79.3 percent of men's, up from 78 percent in 2003. Nationally, women earned 80.3 percent of what men did last year, up from 79.5 percent.
In New England, Vermont had the narrowest pay gap last year, with women earning 85 percent of what men did, while New Hampshire had the widest, as women earned just 72.3 percent of men. Nationally, the gap was narrowest in California, where women earned 87.1 percent of men's pay, and widest in Wyoming, where the figure was just 65.9 percent.
Economists said the relative earnings of women and men vary among states according to the industry mix and the participation of women in the workforce. For example, Wyoming has a large mining sector, a high-paying industry in which few women work, while California's diverse economy offers a broad array of professions, such as lawyers and doctors, in which women are well represented.
Overall, women have made steady progress, with earnings nationally rising to 80.3 percent of men's, from 63 percent in 1979.
Denis McSweeney, regional commissioner of the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics in Boston, cited two key reasons for the gains: More women are working, and more have earned college degrees, opening the doors to well-paid professions.
The percentage of women participating in the labor force nationally grew to 59.2 percent last year from 43 percent in 1970, while those with college degrees jumped to 32.6 percent from 11.2 percent. Last year, nearly one in three physicians were women, compared to about one in 10 in 1979. Women accounted for nearly one-third of lawyers, compared to 13 percent in 1979.
Meanwhile, the inflation-adjusted earnings of college-educated women rose 35 percent between 1979 and 2004, compared to a 20 percent increase for college-educated men, according to the Labor Department.
Women also appear likely to enjoy further gains in earnings, McSweeney added. More than 90 percent of women in the high school class of 2004 are entering college, compared to 61 percent of men.
Una S. Ryan, chief executive of Avant Immunotherapeutics Inc., a Needham biotechnology company, said she believes women are making progress. While women remain a distinct minority among the chief executives of publicly held companies, women nonetheless are succeeding in professions once dominated by men and moving into senior positions.
"The fight is less hard now," said Ryan, Avant's CEO since 1996. "There's more women, and more aspiring women. And now, there's lots of people who think it's perfectly normal for women to be in high positions."
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