gender wage gap STOCK

A century and a half after becoming the first U.S. territory or state to give women the right to vote, Wyoming is lagging behind its neighbors in gender pay gap statistics.

In the late 19th century, Wyoming’s territorial legislature aimed to expand gender equality beyond the ballot box, as lawmakers also passed a law guaranteeing that teachers – most of whom were women – would be paid the same, regardless of gender. They also passed a bill guaranteeing married women property rights separate from their husbands.

Suffrage has a significant place in Wyoming’s history, yet recent statistics reveal a more complicated legacy for women in the Equality State.

Though its exact ranking varies, Wyoming consistently shows up as one of the states with the largest pay disparity between men and women. A 2018 study by the state’s Department of Workforce Services found Wyoming had the second-largest pay gap in the country, with women earning 68 cents for every dollar men made for the same work.

Gov. Mark Gordon highlighted the issue when he signed a proclamation recognizing the gender pay gap in June on the day women would have to work past the end of 2018 to earn what men made in 365 days that year.

The Wyoming Legislature has also explored options to narrow the pay gap. Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, has sponsored several bills related to gender equality in past sessions, though only one, a bill raising fees for equal pay violations to the level for other labor penalties, has passed.

In the 2019 legislative session, Connolly’s bill to raise the state’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour failed in the House by a 23-36 vote. Despite the results, Connolly said there were encouraging signs with the legislation.

“I was really thrilled that there was recognition in the business community and, in particular ... the restaurant hospitality area, that for the first time, they decided to not oppose the bill,” Connolly said. “It’s the recognition that we need workers making a living wage.”

The upcoming 2020 session will focus on the state budget, meaning each legislator is limited to submitting five bills for consideration. Connolly said she hasn’t decided on her top five, but the minimum-wage bill could be one of them.

Another bill that failed last session would’ve prohibited employers from asking for workers’ salary histories, a measure that Connolly said is designed to stop perpetuating the wage gap that might have existed at a previous job.

“For an employer to offer an employee a 10% to 15% bump in wages from their previous job, that’s pretty good, right?” Connolly said. “But if that 10% or 15% is based on a wage gap in a previous job, all you’re doing is perpetuating that wage gap.”

Connolly, a gender and women’s studies professor at the University of Wyoming, said developing statewide post-secondary education will be key to addressing the issue.

“One of the things that we know from all of the data is that in Wyoming, for women to receive a bachelor’s degree is one of the biggest steps in order to decrease the wage gap,” she said. “The wage gap is enormous at lower educational levels, and it diminishes significantly with higher education.”

There is a push to make more post-secondary certificates and certifications available in Wyoming community colleges, though Connolly said it’s important that some of those opportunities are in female-dominated fields.

“I want to see jobs that dominantly employ women, for example, in the health-care sector, health management information systems, things like that,” Connolly said. “So that’s another avenue to adjust the wage gap is to make sure that our attention to retraining and post-secondary education includes thinking about the sectors that women work in, and the jobs that typically women do.”

Navigating this economic reality can be especially difficult for single mothers, Wyoming Women’s Foundation President Rebekah Smith said.

“Financial self-sufficiency is so important for women,” Smith said. “If someone is financially independent or self-sufficient, they are more empowered.”

That empowerment comes with tangible benefits. Making the same as their male counterparts would mean a woman in Wyoming could afford an additional 16 months of child care, 10.2 months of health insurance premiums, and 2.2 years of tuition and fees at a four-year university, according to estimates from the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The gender pay gap has a significant impact on the state’s overall economic health, Smith said. The state’s 2018 study found that if women were paid equally to men, Wyoming would see an additional $153 million in income annually. That money would create economic activity that would produce 604 jobs and more than $80 million.

“This is to our detriment,” Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, said of the pay gap. “We also know that when women make more, how much more reactive it is. When women have high salaries, it lifts everyone up. It means children are receiving better care.”

Burlingame noted the statistics are worse for black and Hispanic women. Nationally, white women earn 79 cents for each dollar earned by a man, while black women earn 62 cents and Hispanic women earn 54 cents, according to research from the American Association of University Women.

“Something that drives me absolutely bonkers is when people say women earn like 72 cents on the dollar,” Burlingame said. “Women don’t earn 72 cents on the dollar; white women earn 72 cents on the dollar.”

While some argue that the gender wage gap is only due to more men being in Wyoming’s mining and energy sectors, that argument is rooted in a misconception and doesn’t dig into the numbers, Wyoming Women’s Action Network founder Jen Simon said.

“A common misconception is that the gender wage gap is a result of making asymmetrical measurements, comparing high-paying industries that have a lot of men to low-paying industries that have a lot of women,” Simon said. “When comparisons are made within industries and occupations, men earn more than women in all but five of the 125 occupations measured – whether there are more men than women, more women than men, or an even mix of both within those industries.”

The pay disparity within industries is coupled with the fact that occupations predominantly filled by women are most likely to be low-wage or minimum-wage jobs. About seven in 10 minimum wage jobs are staffed by women, Smith said.

“There are a lot of factors that go into it,” Smith said. “A lot of minimum-wage jobs are going to be the ones that are available with a part-time option, or hours that work around a school schedule. Women are the primary caregivers for families, so working around child care and school schedules are major factors.”

About 52,000 female workers in Wyoming are earning wages below $15 an hour. An increase to $15 an hour would mean those women would be able to be self-sufficient, substantially lessening their need for government assistance to make ends meet, Simon said.

“Wyoming has the opportunity to be a leader on this issue and here’s how: we can take the lead supporting businesses and implementing policies that are proven to close the gender wage gap while improving the bottom line of businesses,” Simon said. “Some of the top businesses in the country – and the types of businesses that Wyoming is looking to attract – are already taking the initiative to close the gender wage gap because they know that it is good for their bottom line.”

Burlingame said while the Legislature has a role in finding ways to close the wage gap, it isn’t a policy issue alone. Rather, it requires an all-encompassing solution.

“I always believe, and maybe doubly so with wage gap, when we’re at our best, we collaborate really well. We get people in the room from the Legislature, from the private sector, from education and say what would really work here,” Burlingame said. “Not what other states tell us to do, but what would work for Wyoming. And once you get that buy-in, great things happen.”

Former WTE state government reporter Ramsey Scott contributed to this report.

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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