Women are far better represented among the nation's top earners than 30 years ago, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota, Princeton, and the Social Security Administration. But it's not because women are suddenly shattering the glass ceiling and advancing into the upper tiers; rather, it's that they've stopped falling out. What this means, the researchers write, is that women haven't so much shattered the glass ceiling (which they haven't, quite), so much as mended the "paper floor" — the tendency of women to be more likely than men to fall out of the economic elite.
The study contains both good and bad news for advocates of gender equality. Using Social Security Administration records, the researchers found that women have greatly boosted their place among the nation's top earners in the last few years. From 1981 to 2012, women's share of the top one percent grew threefold. However, women's earnings only make up 18 percent of all earnings in the top 0.1 percent, and 11 percent of the earnings among the top 1 percent of earners. In addition, almost all of the increase among the top 0.1 percent happened in the 1980s and 1990s.
"The glass ceiling is still there, but it is thinner than it was three decades ago," the researchers conclude.
But on the positive side, women are now about as likely as men to stay in the top echelons once they get there. The turnover among top earners is really quite high — in for example, only 57 percent of people in the top 0.1 percent of earners in 2011 were still there in 2012. That stickiness has increased since 1981, but it has increased much faster for women, and the ladies have by now nearly caught up to the men.
Back in 1981, there was a 64 percent chance a woman in the top 0.1 percent would fall into the bottom 99 percent within a year and a 74 percent chance for the women in the next 0.9 percent. The comparable stats for men were 24 and 43 percent, respectively.
As of 2011, it was much easier for anyone to stay in the top 1 percent, but the figures were roughly even for men and women. There was only an 8.1 percent likelihood that women in the top 0.1 percent would fall into the bottom 99 percent one year later, compared to 6.6 percent for men. Likewise, a woman in the second 0.9 percent had a 32 percent chance of falling out, compared to men's 26 percent.
And in large part, it's not that women are suddenly climbing to the top in droves. Rather, a big part of these changes are due to the fact that women are simply not falling out of the top percent once they get there. Fully 43 percent of the increase of women among the top 0.1 percent is due to that mended "paper floor," and 58 percent of the increase of women among the top 0.9 percent. The rest is due to new women entering that top 1 percent.
That's a lot of "percents" to wade through. But it matters because money is power. As the researchers point out, these top earners have heavy influence not only on the economy but on politics. Women may still have a tough time getting to the top, but once they get there, they are at the very least much more able now than 30 years ago to stick around, which bodes well for the next ladies to start earning seven-figure salaries.