Economic security is a critical part of everyone’s overall well-being, including women’s. It contributes directly to our educational attainment, health, family stability and community engagement.
Over the last few decades we’ve increased our labor force participation, education, and earnings which has enabled more women to achieve economic security.
Yet a substantial number of women in the United States — and in Wyoming — face economic hardships. In his Common Sense column published on Christmas Eve, Paul Hansen described who among our friends and neighbors are likely to live below the poverty line. It is always more people than we realize.
He wrote about the 25 million adults across the country living in poverty. I want to highlight that more than half of those people — more than 16 million — are women. These national numbers hold true in Wyoming, too. Of approximately 37,000 Wyomingites living in poverty, more than 23,000 of those are women.
There are several likely reasons for this.
Multiple factors contribute to women’s economic insecurity, including the gender wage gap, women’s prevalence in low-paid occupations, a lack of work-family supports, unpaid caregiving responsibilities and the challenges involved in accessing public benefits.
Providing equal pay to women would reduce the poverty rate for working single mothers from 28.7 to 15 percent. It would reduce poverty among all working women from 8.1 to 3.9 percent.
Add to that the fact that women are overrepresented in the lowest paying jobs and underrepresented in the highest.
In Wyoming more than seven in 10 minimum wage workers are women. The federal minimum wage, currently $7.25, hasn’t been raised in more than a decade. Yet Wyoming has not even adopted the federal minimum wage, so our state minimum wage stands tied with Georgia for last in the country at a meager $5.15.
Thanks to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, we also know that as many as 52,000 Wyoming women would see a raise — and most of them would be lifted out of poverty — if the federal minimum wage were to rise to $15 an hour.
At every skill level median earnings are highest in male-dominated occupations and lowest in female-dominated occupations.
I often hear the question, “Why don’t women just choose to go into those higher paying fields?”
In some cases going into a male dominated field with higher wages can be an effective way to access greater economic security. In other situations, being the only woman or one of a very small number of women can create conditions that diminish personal safety or increase the likelihood of harassment.
Perhaps more importantly (and more insidiously), research demonstrates market bias drives wages down when women enter a traditionally male-dominated field in large numbers. The inverse is also true: When men enter previously female-dominated fields in large numbers, wages rise.
These are systemic and structural barriers affecting women’s economic security.
Why differentiate and talk specifically about the poverty of women?
Because, nationally women are more likely to end up in poverty due to the gender wage gap, unpaid caregiving responsibilities, overrepresentation in underpaid professions and related factors that limit our lifetime earnings.
Because occupational segregation — the concentration of women in one set of jobs and men in another — continues to be a persistent feature of the U.S. labor market that contributes to the gender wage gap.
Because there are structural obstacles and market biases that depress women’s earnings.
Because the majority of Wyoming’s population over 70 is female but lacks the necessary resources for retirement. Men have more than three times the assets of women, on average, at the time of retirement.
And, perhaps most importantly, because it is well documented that women reinvest in our communities when we spend our money.
For example, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services noted in its 2018 report on the gender wage gap that raising women’s wages would result in $153 million in additional labor income and 604 new jobs. Even more specifically, the report expected that doctors’ offices would benefit the most with more than $1 million in new income.
When local businesses are the beneficiaries of local spending they can expand their workforce, raise their wages, make additional investments in infrastructure and employees. Putting more financial resources in the hands of Wyoming women yields economic benefit for Wyoming communities.
At a recent Chamber of Commerce Business Over Breakfast, women business leaders in our community described these benefits themselves. They talked about attracting and retaining female employees through, among other approaches, a willingness to provide flexible scheduling options.
Their anecdotal experiences mirror research that shows employee productivity goes up and turnover goes down under these circumstances.
A win for employers and employees alike — and a reminder that economic security for women is a win for businesses and for Wyoming communities.