Let's call it tepid optimism for the average, full-time working American woman. Back in 1973, she was pulling in a salary equal to just 56.6% of her male counterpart's. Since then, the gap has narrowed significantly. According to data released by the Census Bureau last month, the full-time working woman in America now earns a salary equal to 78.6% of her male counterpart's.
Of course, this information can be interpreted in many ways. On one hand, the narrowing of the wage gap is a great thing, and it's a sign that the workplace is becoming more equitable. On the other, the fact that a gap still exists at all is a sign that we still have a long way to go.
What we know for sure
Let's examine how the wage gap has changed over time. Median wages for men have remained constant over the past 40 years. Median wages for women, on the other hand, have risen by more than 30% during the same time frame.
Awareness of the gender wage gap has increased, along with efforts to eliminate it. At the same time, the number of women going to and graduating from college has increased at a far faster pace than the number of men graduating from college over this period. That goes a long way in helping to explain this trend.
Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has shown that, among women aged 25 to 34 in 2012, the average pay per hour was 93% of what men were being paid -- an even narrower gap.
It's entirely possible that, within the next two decades, this pay gap among younger workers will disappear. What happens to the wage gap during the age range in which women are most likely to have children, however, remains uncertain. While new options for working -- including part-time work, telecommuting, and flexible hours -- may help, they may not be enough to fully close the gap.
What women can do to set themselves up for success
Several studies have already shown that women's retirement savings are considerably smaller in size than men's. But this isn't because women aren't already doing many things right: In general, women participate in company retirement plans at higher rates and also decide to put away a larger portion of their salary than male counterparts.
There are two steps that women can take to try and bridge this retirement savings gap even more. First, younger women workers, who are generally subject to a smaller wage gap, need to save and invest as much as possible. Though many are already out-saving males, every extra penny that can be saved in one's twenties and earlier thirties makes a disproportionate difference. That's because this money has over four decades of compound growth ahead of it.
The second strategy would be to take a more aggressive approach to investing -- especially for younger women. Investing in high-growth stocks or ETFs can be a volatile ride. But if an investor has the right disposition -- i.e., if they are willing to stick to their retirement saving plan and buy and hold for the long run -- then this can produce superior results. Over a long enough time frame, investors in high-risk stocks have almost always been rewarded with higher returns. Those types of returns can help put women on even footing with men, regardless of how large or narrow the wage gap is.