A national women’s research group predicts Wyoming — the so-called “Equality State” — won’t close its gender wage gap until 2159 if current trends continue.
That’s an amazing estimate, and one that inexplicably didn’t get much media attention in the state. Maybe it’s because the date is so distant, it is hard for Wyomingites to accept. That’s 101 years after the average state in the nation is projected to reach pay equity, and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research says that likely won’t even happen for another 43 years, in 2058.
Why will it take Wyoming almost a century and a half to close its admittedly wide gender pay gap? Not much else in the world will move at such a snail’s pace. Wyoming won’t achieve gender wage equality until at least a decade before the Chicago Cubs finally win another World Series. You would think we could do much better than that, given our well-established support for equality (except for health care, gay rights and workers’ rights).
It’s no secret that for years Wyoming ranked at the very bottom of the nation in its women’s-to-men’s pay gap. Last year the state moved up to 49th, finally passing Louisiana and West Virginia. The IWPR says Wyoming women earn only 68 cents for every dollar a man does. Similar studies in recent years have put Wyoming’s rate higher, but only by a few cents.
Still, 2159 is a long way off. What research has the IWPR done to reach such an embarrassing conclusion about the state’s future? Quite a bit, actually. If you read the group’s study, it provides some interesting and surprising statistics about how Wyoming compares to other states on the issue.
Wyoming ranks 22nd nationally for women’s pay for full-time, year-round work. Women here make an average of $36,000 a year — far below the $53,000 average for men, but slightly better than the national average in terms of the amount of money they earned in 2013.
Women hold about 41 percent of the managerial or professional positions in the state. However, men are nearly twice as likely to be employed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers than women. These are higher paying jobs that contribute to the considerable gap in the earnings of Wyoming men and women.
Wyoming’s rankings in categories the research institute examined — the actual gender wage gap (49th), labor force participation (10th) and women in professional and managerial positions (15th) combined to give Wyoming a “C” grade on the group’s report card and overall ranked it 28th in the nation. By comparison, the District of Columbia earned an “A,” while West Virginia brought home an “F.”
Overall Wyoming was rated just behind the middle of the pack, which raises the question, why should Wyoming be projected as the last state to achieve gender pay equity in 2159? The group estimates the next slowest state on the list is Louisiana in 2106.
State Rep. Catherine Connolly (D-Laramie) points to a reason cited by most observers: the lack of women in the highest paying jobs in the state’s energy sector, long the main driver of Wyoming’s economy.
“Men can go to the oil fields and make a living wage without having a college degree, or even a high school diploma,” the legislator noted, adding that women at the same educational level make up an overwhelming majority of the state’s minimum-wage and tipped employee workforce.
During their respective lifetimes, according to the IWPR, a woman in the U.S. earns about $530,000 less than a man does. Higher education can make a difference in women’s wages, since a female with a bachelors degree earns more than twice as much during her lifetime as a woman with less than a high school education. “The rewards for a higher education are far greater for women than men,” Connolly said.
But higher education doesn’t do anything to actually close the gender wage inequity — college only increases the gap for men and women who obtain comparable degrees. By age 59, a woman with a higher education will have brought home almost $800,000 less during her career than the average man at the same educational level.
While some programs such as CLIMB Wyoming have been successful training women to obtain good-paying jobs — including those in energy and construction — the number of graduates is still relatively small. Women are not entering these higher-paying fields in large enough numbers to significantly reduce the gender wage gap.
Connolly said the jobs women in Wyoming do are needed, but they are not valued as highly as they should be when it comes to remuneration for their work. “We don’t need to increase the number of women in the labor force, but we need to increase the wages we pay them,” she said.
What are some of the solutions that could advance Wyoming’s effort to close the gap sooner? Connolly says raising the state’s $5.15 per hour minimum wage — something the Legislature has been loath to consider — would also likely increase pay for the next tier of workers who are making 15 percent to 20 percent above the minimum. “Those workers are overwhelmingly women,” she said.
She said promoting economic diversity by recruiting more technology and other companies would also provide more women opportunities for higher paying employment. “We need to give these businesses incentives to come here,” Connolly said. “The Wyoming Business Council needs to monitor these companies and make them guarantee they will bring in good jobs, and not replicate the gender wage gap.”
No matter how many statistics are compiled, there are still many Wyoming legislators — including women — who deny the gender wage gap even exists. One of the most outspoken is Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna).
She responded online to a March 17 Wyoming Business Report article about the IWPR study.
“The so-called ‘gender wage gap’ is calculated by adding up all the wages earned by men, Column A, and all the wages earned by women, Column B. The difference in the totals of the two columns is referred to as the ‘gender wage gap,'” Halverson wrote. “It doesn’t get more disingenuous than that.”
The conservative lawmaker urged the publication and its readers, “Let this go. It’s over. This has been completely discredited and the continued regurgitation only makes you look ridiculous. There is NO gender wage gap when you compare apples to apples. The ‘Institute for Women’s Policy Research’? First clue that there’s an ax to grind.”
Gender wage gap deniers always claim groups studying the very real issue compare “apples to oranges,” Connolly said. Like those who refuse to accept climate change, all of the evidence in the world would probably not change their minds.
“They say they don’t care [about the statistics], because the information is irrelevant,” the Democrat said. “Their other explanation is that it’s a choice women make — ‘they can go out and get an engineering degree; they knew what the wages are, so don’t come crying to us.'”
Here’s one final statistic from the IWPR’s report that should be considered by critics of those who have thoroughly examined all the evidence and have no doubt the gender wage gap exists. More than 40 percent of the wage gap “cannot be explained, even when gender differences in education, experience, industries, occupations and union status are taken into account.”
If anyone has an ax to grind, it’s legislators who will do anything to keep from admitting what the vast, solid statistics gathered over the past few decades virtually shout: our Equality State has turned a blind eye to gender pay equity. The state still isn’t addressing the issue, which may be the primary reason the IWPR is so pessimistic about our future.
Unless lawmakers take the problem seriously and meet it head on, it may well take until 2159 for Wyoming to get its act together.
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.