Women reach their peak earnings at the age of 44, earning on average $66,700. Men reach their peak earnings at the age of 55, earning on average $101,200.
Legal occupations have the largest difference in peak earnings for men and women. Women in legal occupations reach their peak wage of $75,000 at age 35, while men in legal professions reach their peak wage of $168,800 at age 56. The difference in the peak earnings for men and women in legal occupations, $93,800, is $18,800 higher than what women make at the height of their careers in these occupations.
Black or African American men and women have the lowest peak wages. Black or African American men’s peak wage is $80,000. Black or African American women’s peak wage is $61,100. (opens in a new tab)
Since 2015, PayScale has studied the gender pay gap and has found persistent differences in men’s and women’s earnings.The pay gap is widest for women of color1, but we have also found there are significant differences between the earnings of men of color and white men.
Various factors contribute to wage gaps across demographic groups. In addition to other causes such as occupational segregation, we see women of all races and ethnicities and men of color are less represented at higher levels of organizations than white men. In the job search process, they benefit less frequently from employee referrals, which help applicants get a foot in the door, than white men. This impacts pay since we also found employee referrals can have a positive impact on pay and employee engagement metrics, which in turn influences performance. Lastly, we have found men and women of color are less likely than white men to get raises when they ask for them.
In this piece, we explore another aspect of the pay gap: among workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, women’s earnings peak much sooner than men’s. Given that they also start their careers earning less and most of their wage growth is early on, this means women’s peak earnings are significantly lower than men’s. More specifically, women reach their peak career earnings – a median of $66,700 – at age 44 compared to men who reach their peak – a median $101,200 – at an age of 55. This large difference in when wages max out is consistent with our previous research.
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When we look at the data for different demographic groups, the story becomes more complicated, but there are recurring themes. Women of all races start their careers making less than white men, but the growth rate of their wages tends to outpace that of white men early in their careers. This starts to change around the age of 29 and the growth rate of wages for women in their mid-thirties begins to be eclipsed by that of white men.
The notable exception to this is black or African American women. The growth rates of wages for black or African American women in their 20s tend to keep pace with that of white men, and it flattens out much earlier. By the time white men hit their peak earnings they are earning $43,000 more than black or African American women earn at their peak.
Looking at earnings profiles of different groups helps us understand why there are gaps in wages. They show different groups face different obstacles in the workplace. Thus, it’s important to take an intersectional approach when addressing workplace inequities.
Measuring Peak Earnings
In this study, we used a sample of more than 1.4 million workers who took PayScale’s salary survey between April, 2016 and April, 2019. These respondents reported their gender in addition to information about their occupation, location and other factors that impact pay.
We restrict our data to those between the ages of 22 and 60 to avoid small sample sizes when we look at the data by occupations. Since our data tend to over represent white-collar workers, we restrict our analysis to those with at least a bachelor’s degree.
While our data is rich, it is not longitudinal. In other words, we are not able to track the earnings of the same people at different ages. Instead, we are comparing contemporaneous wages of different age groups. We assume, however, that this is more or less an accurate reflection of how worker’s wages grow throughout their career. Given that our data broadly follows what we would expect an individual’s earnings profile to look like over their career, we feel our data is a reasonable proxy for panel data.
When Earnings Peak for Men and Women
When it comes to pay, women and men do not start their careers on even footing. The median income of women age 22 is $40,400 versus $52,500 for men. This $12,100 difference in wages starts to shrink as women’s wages initially grow faster than those of men. However, the gap in earnings starts to grow again at age 29 as the growth rate of women’s wages starts to slow down while men’s wages continue to steadily increase.
For women aged 37-38, earnings growth flatlines, similar to what we have found in previous research. The median wage for 38-year-old women is $64,000, which is roughly equivalent to what 27-year old men earn. Meanwhile, the median wage for 38-year-old men is $86,500, $22,500 more than the median wage of women in the same age group.
The growth rate of median wages picks up somewhat after the age of 38 before starting to flatten out again. Women reach their peak wages at the age of 44. At this age, they earn $66,700. Men, on the other hand, reach their peak wages at the age of 55, and they earn $101,200. The difference in men and women’s peak earnings $34,500.
What Drives Differences in Peak Earnings
The divergence we see in the growth rate of earnings happens between the ages of 29 and 38, when those with at least a bachelor’s degree tend to start having children. This suggests that a key factor driving the divergence in earnings growth is the impact having children has on men and women’s career decisions and the corresponding “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood premium.” Specifically, after having children, women tend to reduce the number of hours they work outside the home, while men tend to either work the same number of hours or increase the hours they work2.
Family demands may be a key factor driving the divergence of earnings growth for men and women. This becomes clearer when we look at which occupations3 have the largest gaps in wage growth. “Greedy” jobs, i.e. those that pay a premium for working long hours, have the largest divergence in the growth rate of wages for women and men. They are also some of the highest paying occupations.
Occupations with Long Hours Have Large Differences in Earnings
Legal, healthcare, sales, life sciences and management occupations have the greatest differences in earnings growth rates between men and women. With all of these job families, like with the overall figures, a gap in the growth rate of earnings starts to open up for those in their late-20s. However, there are differences between these occupations in the earnings growth profiles of men and women.
Table 1: The Five Occupations with the Largest Gaps in Earnings Growth
Largest Percentage Point Difference in Earnings Growth
Legal occupations, which reward long hours and perpetual availability, have the largest divergence by far. Fifty-six-year-old men in legal occupations make the most money. Their median earnings are $168,00, 359 percent higher than the median earnings for 22-year-old men in these occupations. Thirty-five-year-old women in legal occupations, on the other hand, earn more than women in any other age group. Their median income is $75,000, an increase of 114 percent over 22-year-old women. The difference in the peak income for men and women in legal occupations is $93,800, or $18,800 more than women make at the height of their careers.
Sales occupations have the third largest divergence. Fifty-four-year-old men in sales make the most. They earn on average $83,800, an increase of 103 percent of what 22-year-olds in sales make. Forty-one-year-old women make more than any other age group of women. They earn on average $61,700, an increase of 67 percent over what 22-year-old women in sales make.
What is most notable about the earnings growth profile for sales is that wage growth does not just stagnate; it perceptibly decreases. This is especially true for women. Median earnings plummet after peaking at age 41. By the time women in sales occupations reach age 60, they are earning $46,200, $15,500 less than they made at their peak. It appears the adage “sales is a young man’s game” is true in the sense that both the young and men earn more.
Management is another job area that is considered “greedy” since it requires long hours and face-to-face time, even if it is via video-conferencing software. In management occupations, men at their peak earn $125,300, while women at their peak earn $84,100, a difference of $41,200. However, unlike other occupations this is not because men’s wages peak much later than women’s. Wages for men in management positions max out at age 55, while for women they do at 54. Most of the difference is due to large differences in wage growth starting at the age of 33.
The divergence of men and women’s wages in management jobs is significant, not just because of the considerable difference in earnings, but because it also represents that women do not climb the corporate ladder at the same rate that men do. In our study of the gender pay gap, we found 11 percent of men 45 and older4 are directors and 8 percent are executives. For women, these numbers are 8 percent and 3 percent, respectively. No doubt, much of the divergence we see in the earnings of men and women in management occupations is due to women not making it to the highest levels within organizations.
Earnings Profiles for Different Demographic Groups
In the aggregate, we see that when earnings peak differs for women and men. From our own research as well as a recent report by Catalyst, among others, we know people of different race/ethnic backgrounds face different obstacles in the workforce. Given this, just looking at the data by gender alone offers us a limited view of how certain groups fare in the workplace.
There are two interesting findings when we look at the earnings profiles for different demographic groups. First, similar to the overall wage figures, women of all demographic groups start their careers earning less than white men do. At some point the growth rate of white men’s wages outpaces that of women, however, the age at which this gap starts opening differs by racial/ethnic group. Second, there is not a consistent gap in wage growth between men and women within the same racial/ethnic group. There is also not a consistent gap in the earnings profile of white men and men of color.
Table 2: Peak Earnings by Demographic Group
Median Earnings at 22
Age When Earnings Peak
% Growth from Age 22 to Peak Earnings
Black of African American Men
Black of African American Women
Comparing Earnings of Women and White Men
When we compare peak wages for women of different demographic groups5 and white men6 the story becomes more complicated, though there are some recurring themes. Women of all races/ethnicities make less than white men when they start their careers. They also tend to have higher wage growth earlier in their careers, which then slows down.
The notable exception to this is black and African American women. Like women of other racial/ethnic groups, they earn less than white men when starting their careers – $39,500 versus $52,100. However, rather than outpacing white men’s wage growth early in their careers, their earnings increase at about the same rate. Then, around the age of 32, white men’s wage growth starts to eclipse that of black or African American women. Lower starting pay, with no period of faster growth, translates into a large difference in peak income between these groups. The peak income of black or African American women is $61,100, versus $104,100 for white men. This $43,000 difference is more than the median earnings of 22-year-old black or African American women.
Hispanic women start their careers making less than any other demographic group. Their median earnings are $37,900. This is $14,200 less than the median earnings of white men. Unlike the growth rate of earnings for black or African American women, Hispanic women’s wage growth does outpace that of white men until around the age of 34-35. At this point, Hispanic women earn on average $59,400, approximately three-quarters of the $81,900 that white men earn. Hispanic women’s wages top out at $71,000, slightly less than a third of white men’s peak earnings. Unlike women of other demographic groups, however, Hispanic women experience an sustained uptick in their wage growth later in their careers. This uptick could be due to different cultural expectations of college educated Hispanic women.
Asian women make more than women in any other racial/demographic group throughout their careers, but they still make less than white men. At the start of their careers, their median earnings of $47,900 is $4,200 less than that of white men. However, Asian women have much higher wage growth than white men and do not have as pronounced of a flattening of wage growth as other groups. As a result, their wage growth does not definitively become surpassed by that of white men until the age of 43. Asian women’s peak earning are $95,600, or roughly 92 percent of white men’s peak earnings.
While Asian women’s earnings profile may seem encouraging, it does not provide the full picture of the constraints that Asian women face in the workplace. In our Gender Pay Gap report, we show that of all demographic groups Asian women have the highest rate of being individual contributors. Despite tenure and ability, many Asians may be stereotyped as being passive and uncreative, which likely hinders their ability to be promoted to leadership roles. Additionally, the racial group “Asian” encompasses many different ethnic groups who are not treated equally in the workplace. Undoubtedly, this contributes to inequality rising faster among Asians than any other demographic group.
Of the data by race and gender, that of white women most closely resembles the overall figures. This is unsurprising since there are more white women in our sample and in the US labor force than women of other demographic groups. White women begin their careers with the second highest wages of any race/ethnic group, earning on average $39,900. Their wage growth starts to slow around 29, but is not outpaced by white men until age 35. At this age, white women on average earn $63,300, while white men earn slightly more at $81,900. However, the chasm that opens up in the growth rate of their wages mean that white women’s wages peak at $68,800, roughly two-thirds of white men’s peak earnings.
Comparing Earnings of Men and Women of the Same Demographic Group
We have seen that there is a divergence in wage growth for men and women and for white men and women of color. However, when we compare the earnings profile of men and women of the same demographic group this is not always the case. In particular, black or African American and Hispanic workers do not experience the same divergence in wage growth.
One reason for this lack of divergence is occupational segregation. Specifically, black or African American and Hispanic workers have lower rates of employment in the occupations that we have seen have the largest divergence of wages for men and women.
There are also two other factors. First, there is evidence that black or African American and Hispanic men can experience lower fatherhood premiums than white men. This means that the spike that we see in the earnings of men overall around the time they start to become fathers may not happen for black or African American and Hispanic men. Second, of those with at least a college degree, black or African American and Hispanic women have higher labor force participation rates than white and Asian women. This may result in smaller motherhood and unemployment penalties for black or African American and Hispanic women.
There are also different trends for men of color versus white men. Wages for all men of color tend to keep pace of that of white men earlier in their careers. Over time a gap opens up, similar to the gap between men and women overall. This is likely in part due to men of color being less likely to move up the corporate ladder than white men. It also may reflect the greater degree of wage discrimination that older men of color faced earlier in their careers.
The gap in wages between men and women is driven by many complex and related factors. By looking at wages for different age groups we can better assess the issues workers face. That wages for women tend to slow down for those in their late 20s, suggests that starting a family is likely a key element of the gender pay gap. This is supported by our occupational data and other research that shows that women in “greedy” occupations take a large hit to their wages compared to their male peers, even those who also have children.
Our insights on when wages peak for men and women, broken down by occupation and racial/ethnic group, highlights how complex the gender pay gap is. They also underscore the importance of understanding intersectionality when trying to address disparities in pay. Unless policies are designed with all people in mind, pay gaps will not only persist, but can actually worsen.
Age – Age groups are defined as the from the midpoint of the previous age to the midpoint of the age reported. For example, the age group 22, includes those between the ages of 21.5 and 22.49.
Median Pay: The median pay is the national median (50th Percentile) total cash compensation (TCC). Half the people doing the job earn more than the median, while half earn less. We use median as the measure of average pay.
Occupations: We report data for 22 occupations as defined by the Standard Occupational Classification System.
Race/Ethnicity: Respondents to our salary survey were asked about their race/ethnicity, but were not required to answer to complete the survey. They could choose one or more of the following options:
American Indian and Alaska Native
Black or African American
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander
Prefer Not to Answer
For our analysis by race, we report data only for Asian, black or African American and Hispanic respondents due to sample size concerns. We also only report data for respondents who chose exactly one of the options above.
Total Cash Compensation: TCC combines base annual salary or hourly wage, bonuses, profit sharing, tips, commissions, and other forms of cash earnings, as applicable. It does not include equity (stock) compensation, cash value of retirement benefits, or value of other non-cash benefits (e.g., healthcare).
Our analysis of the gender pay gap by race was restricted to those with at least a bachelor’s degree.
There is evidence that the differences in earnings of men and women after having children cannot be entirely attributed to differences in hours work. One theory as to why the gap remains is becoming a father sends positive signals to employers about dependability and commitment, while becoming a mother sends a negative signal about dedication to work.
We have smaller sample sizes when we look at the data by occupation. Consequently, there is more volatility in our data. Nevertheless, we are confident that the overall trend in the data is accurate.
We look at this age group because it is when wages peak in management occupations and because it has the highest percentage of directors and executives.
We have smaller sample sizes when we look at the data by race since survey respondents are not required to report race. Consequently, there is more volatility in our data. Nevertheless, we are confident that the overall trend in the data is accurate.
We choose to compare the earnings of different demographic groups to that of white men since they have traditionally be in positions of power within the workforce in the United States.