$100,000 -A-Year Women

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Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.

Unfortunately, as we all know – or should know – working women generally make less than working men, currently 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. But now come new census figures showing that in at least one regard, women are forging ahead of their male counterparts. They're doing much better than men among higher paid workers.

It turns out that the number of women with six-figure incomes is rising at a much faster pace than is the number of men making six-figure incomes.

Nationwide, it looks like this: About one in 18 women working full time – about 2.5 million women in all – earned $100,000 or more in 2009, a jump of 14 percent from two years earlier. Only one in seven men, a total of about 8 million, made that much, an increase of just four percent.

How did that happen? Why so many higher-paid women? The most important reason seems to be the steady growth over the past three decades of women with the academic credentials to qualify them for higher-paying work. Women, in fact, now outnumber men at just about every level of higher education, with three women attending college and graduate school for every two men doing so.

Women earn more master's degrees and more PhDs. Most law school students are women. So are almost half of the country's medical students. Law and medicine are, of course, the academic fields that generally lead to higher paying professional jobs.

The two Washington Post staff writers who reported the Census findings, Carol Morello and Dan Keating, caution, however, that the wage gap between men and women "remains stubbornly persistent". And despite women's increased pay generally, women are only sparsely represented at the higher levels of business. For instance, just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

lIene Lang, president of Catalyst, a group that's working to improve business opportunities for women,  is cautious as well. It's no surprise to her that as women get more education, they earn more. But, she said, "women have been getting these degrees for a long time. And they're still hitting a glass ceiling."

We should take into account the impact of the current recession, which has hit men much harder than women. Median pay and hours worked fell twice as much for men as for women. The share of workers earning annual pay of $50,000 or more has stayed pretty much the same for men throughout the recession, but has risen 5 percent for women.

There's another matter to consider. The fields with more men than women – manufacturing and construction, for example – have been declining throughout the recession, at the same time that there's been a steady increase in jobs requiring the higher levels of education that more women have reached. So working women, although still far behind working men in compensation, are steadily gaining.

Women still have got a long, long way to go before reaching wage equality, but they're on the way. Finally.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his columns.