Exploring the gender wage gap: Part two

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Last weekend, on Dec. 1, my column tackled the gender wage gap in Wyoming. 

It should be as simple as this: On average, men earn more money than women, even if they work the same number of hours, year-round, in the same occupation with the same experience and education. 

Nonpartisan organizations have studied this issue across the United States, from the Pew Research Center to the U.S. Census Bureau. A recent study by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services revealed that, on average, women earn 68 cents for every dollar men earn in our state.  

There is no doubt: The gender wage gap persists. Yet, many don’t believe it exists.

When I shared articles reporting the study results on the Facebook Page for The Sheridan Press, the majority of our followers either gave other reasons for the gap or rejected the premise (“FAKE NEWS”).

In my column last week, I responded to the different categories of comments, citing facts from the study and diving into unconscious biases. But I still had much to say — and to learn. So, this week, I extended my exploration. 

We left off with a man who was advising our Facebook followers:

“…[R]ead the fine print of these studies,” he commented. “The updated study’s introduction said the gender wage disparity is often attributed to differences in occupations, industries, hours worked, experience and gender discrimination.”

Today, I would like to address those factors that contribute to the gender wage gap on a broader scale. 

First — humor me as I remind you that those factors don’t necessarily affect the WDWS study, which considered full-time, year-round workers in 228 occupations.

But, if we set aside direct comparisons, those factors do play a role in women’s lower earnings in general. Let’s break them down.

DIFFERENCES IN OCCUPATIONS AND INDUSTRIES

Do men take on higher-paying careers than women, or are the jobs that women do less valued? 

In Wyoming, folks point to the oil-and-gas industry for possibly skewing results of gender wage gap studies, as men with hard-labor jobs earn high wages. But why are those hard-labor jobs valued more than women’s work as office managers? Both take a certain skill level, both are important to the industry and both require the same level of education and experience. I grant that the hard-labor jobs have a higher risk. But is that reason enough to pay women 39 percent less, as shown in the WDWS study? 

Drawing from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Cornell University published a study in 2016 that found significant discrepancies in jobs that required similar education and responsibility but tended to be divided by gender. For example, the mostly male janitors earned 22 percent more than the mostly female maids and housecleaners. 

Similarly, using 50 years of U.S. Census data, a 2009 study published by The University of North Carolina Press revealed that when women enter an industry that had been dominated by men, such as design or biology, salaries dropped across the board. 

If a woman wants to do a job, it suddenly seems less valuable.

DIFFERENCES IN HOURS WORKED

The WDWS study states that “86.0% of men usually worked 35 or more hours per week, compared to 69.2% of women.” Unsurprisingly, people earn less if they work less. 

But no, the workforce is not overrun with lazy women. Rather, high child care costs and poor paid family leave force many women to quit their jobs or take part-time work to care for their children.  

We can partly blame gender norms for this — stay-at-home dads are still relatively rare. Mothers also tend to be seen as inefficient hires by potential employers, while fathers tend to be promoted.  

This well-documented effect is known as the motherhood penalty.

DIFFFERENCES IN EXPERIENCE

Across the nation, women are surpassing men in earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, according to statistics from the U.S. Labor Department. 

Nationally, this tends to widen the wage gap, but in Wyoming, the study reports, it narrows it. In our state, many women work in the educational services industry, which requires post-secondary degrees. Good news, right? However —

“Educational attainment doesn’t prevent the trend of the gender wage gap widening with age,” the study states. 

While women earn similar wages to their male counterparts in their early 20s, the gap incrementally widens for the same groups in their 30s and 40s. Which brings us to…

GENDER DISCRIMINATION 

According to 2017 survey data from the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of women say they have faced gender discrimination.

Repeated small slights, less support from senior leaders, promotion denials and — yes — lower earnings than a man doing the same job are just a few of the ways in which women are set apart. 

I am not saying that employers are deviously conspiring to hold women down. 

But I am repeating that we all have unconscious biases, deep-seated stereotypes that we may not even know we believe. This affects women in the workplace — even because of other women. 

One reader emailed me after last week’s column and described his work at three major businesses in Sheridan over the past 20 years. 

“During the entirety of my employment with all three, each had female Human Resources managers,” he wrote. “Why aren’t these managers taking greater action concerning the inequity in pay?”

This irony was compounded by a text I recently received from my Grammy Kay.

“Holy cow,” she wrote. “The first bosses who underpay girls? Their own parents! Boys earn twice as much as girls!” 

She delivered the stats from an article, “Unequal pay: Early start, lifelong unfairness,” published in the Nov. 23 issue of news magazine The Week.

“Data from a house-hold chore app Busy Kid shows boys taking $13.80 a week in allowance, compared to just $6.71 for girls,” the article states. “…Girls should learn early to negotiate for themselves, but employers — and parents — need to be aware of their own biases.”

The same awareness benefits us in the grown-up world. Luckily, Wyoming has the opportunity to address the issue. 

“The reality is every year, every year, Wyoming comes out at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the wage gap between men and women, all right?” said Rep. Marti Halverson, R-Etna, in a joint legislative committee meeting on bills that would address the gender wage gap.

“We now have some additional data that explains it,” she continued. “We can get more, and we can do it better if we did more (research), but the reality is what this bill does is one tiny step. 

“So, when that headline comes out that Wyoming is worse for women, we can turn around and say, ‘We understand that data, and we’re doing something about it.’”

At the end of the meeting, the committee voted to sponsor three bills, which would introduce equal pay penalties, wage transparency and wage equality in state employment. 

The Wyoming Legislature will vote in January. Next year marks the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage in our Equality State — I hope our government strives to live up to the name.

Author’s note: Read about the WDWS study and Wyoming legislators’ response in these Sheridan Press articles: “Women still earning less than men in Wyoming,” published on Oct. 27, and “Legislators respond to gender wage gap study,” published on Nov. 24. As always, I appreciate any information or feedback you care to share: caitlin.addlesperger@thesheridanpress.com. 

By |Dec. 7, 2018|

About the Author:

Caitlin Addlesperger started writing for The Sheridan Press as a 15-year-old youth reporter and continued her career as a college intern and then staff reporter. After nearly a decade spent in the writing, editing and marketing worlds in Italy and New York, she is back at The Press as the director of special projects, a role in which she aims to connect the newspaper with the community. Email Caitlin at caitlin.addlesperger@thesheridanpress.com.

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