Earlier this month the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services released an update to a 2003 study on wage disparity between men and women in Wyoming.
Wyoming consistently ranks among the states with the widest wage gap. The new study, commissioned in a bill passed during the 2017 legislative session, aimed to assess the origin of the gap. The updated study looked at contributing factors and found a wage gap persists across industries and occupations.
“It illustrated over again that the wage gap is real and that it exists both between and collectively through a variety of variables,” said Wyoming Rep. Cathy Connolly, a Democrat from Laramie.
Connolly co-sponsored the bill in 2017 with Rep. Marti Halverson, a Republican from Etna.
“Of course there’s variation where it widens or narrows significantly,” Connolly said. “But overall, with virtually everything we look at, we see that wage gap.”
The gender wage gap in Wyoming is approximately 32 cents, meaning women make an average of 68 cents for every dollar men make, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data. The only state with a bigger wage gap is Louisiana. The national average is a 20-cent wage gap.
These numbers compare the difference between the income earned by men working full time, year round with the income of women working full time, year round, regardless of occupation or any other factor.
The updated study used a logarithmic equation to calculate the raw wage gap in Wyoming, the gap when only annual wages and sex were taken into consideration (as opposed to hours or time of year). The raw wage gap was 28 cents. When accounting for 15 factors the study found industry and hours worked were the two biggest contributing factors, accounting for 15 cents of the gap.
The remaining 13 cents could not be accounted for by the variables included in the study. Those 13 cents could be attributed to discrimination, according to the study.
“Only half of the gap can be explained,” Connolly said.
Other studies around the country have found portions of the gender wage gap that can’t be attributed to any of the variables used, and that’s the portion often attributed to gender discrimination, which is concerning, she said.
In a 2012 report from the American Association of University Women, a nonprofit research organization, a 7 percent difference in men and women’s wages was found even after controlling for a variety of related factors such as college major, occupation, industry sector, hours worked, workplace flexibility, experience, educational attainment, enrollment status, GPA, college selectivity, age, race/ethnicity, region, marital status and motherhood.
Research from two professors at Cornell, published in 2016, when controlled for education, experience, race/ethnicity, region and metropolitan area, found 38 percent of the current wage gap is from “unexplained factors,” which they attribute to several potential factors, including pure discrimination, as well as more subtle reasons such as cultural deterrents to women pursuing careers in historically male-dominated professions.
The results of the Wyoming study are not a direct measure of discrimination, Connolly said, but if evidence of discrimination were to come from anywhere, it would be in the unexplained portion.
Whereas this finding was cause for concern for Connolly, it came as a relief to Halverson.
“I was relieved that there was no blatant discrimination found,” Halverson said. “That really worried me, and when Cathy and I put this bill together, I was worried that a report might find some systemic discrimination. How on earth was the Legislature going to deal with that?
“There is a fraction of the wage gap that cannot be explained,” she said. “Is there discrimination in there? The report did not conclusively find that.”
In general in Wyoming, men historically have dominated high-paying mineral extraction jobs, whereas women dominate in lower-paying occupations such as education and health care.
The study found the wage gap for women in Teton County is the second lowest in the state, at 7 cents.
In Jackson tourism and hospitality are the dominant industries, and they are also often associated with the narrowest gap, but they are also associated with low wages.
The narrow gap is something Jackson can be proud of, Connolly said, but because it is primarily due to the prevalence of low-paying jobs it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Because industry is such a strong indicator of wages, the argument is often made that women should pursue careers in higher-paying industries. Research has shown that argument doesn’t always hold water.
2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Department of Workforce Services and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services shows janitors in Wyoming, mostly men, made a median hourly wage of $13.45, about 80 cents more than the national average.
In comparison, maids and housekeeping cleaners in Wyoming, mostly women, made a median hourly wage of $9.73, over $3 less than their male counterparts and about 50 cents less an hour than the national average.
A comprehensive study of U.S. Census data from 1950 to 2000 found that as women moved into professions previously dominated by men, the average wage dropped. The inverse was true as men moved into jobs that were previously held by majority women.
That may be the case, Halverson said, but from a legislative perspective, it is hard to change people’s values.
“We’ve tried to legislate morality before and it didn’t work,” Halverson said.
Policies can, however, create accommodations to address workplace limitations that often lead to economic disparities for women down the line, said Natalia Macker, a Teton County commissioner.
Policies in the Wyoming Legislature tend to not prioritize funding for child care, because there is a perception that care should be handled at home by the mother, Macker said. Policies can support child care costs and other responsibilities typically assigned to women without writing such a mandate into the law.
In Teton County child care is on average one of the top two biggest costs for families.
Research shows women are disproportionately penalized for having children, seeing an average 4 percent wage decrease for each child. Men often receive pay increases after having children — an average of 6 percent, some research found.
For women, and especially single mothers, all these elements combine to disproportionately place the burden of that cost and that care on women, contributing to cycles of generational poverty, said Jen Simon, the representative for the Wyoming Council for Women’s Issues for Teton, Sublette and Fremont counties.
Macker has two young kids and as a county commissioner she is frequently expected to attend meetings across the state, sometimes requiring her to drive eight hours each way, which sometimes means she is not present at the meetings, she said.
Allowing women to Skype in to meetings instead of having to drive long distances to attend them is one way to support women in holding public policy positions without forcing them to compromise other responsibilities, Macker said.
She recently received special permission to attend a meeting via video conference instead of traveling to it.
Including the cost of child care and maternity and paternity leave in workplace benefits is another way to support women’s responsibilities outside of the workplace. And in creating such policies, Macker said, it makes a big difference if legislators have firsthand experience with child care, whether they are men or women.
“There is nothing better than s omeone helping craft a policy who has the lived experience that policy is going to impact,” Macker said. “They’re family issues, they’re economic issues; they’re not women’s issues.”
Indeed, the new study tested the effects of women’s hourly wages being increased to those of men and found it would add $153 million in labor income, the effect of 604 additional jobs and over $80 million to the Wyoming economy.
Before the next meeting of the Labor, Health and Human Services Committee meeting, Connolly and Halverson have been charged with brainstorming bills to address the pervasive wage gap.
The opportunity to present possible policy solutions to the committee felt like a nod to the study’s importance, Connolly said.
She and Halverson already have a few ideas, they said. They plan to reintroduce a bill they brought up last session, which they call the “penalty parity” bill. The bill would increase the fine to employers found to be paying workers different amounts based on sex. The fine for other workplace violations such as incorrectly reporting the hours an employee worked is hundreds of dollars higher than the current fine for wage discrimination based on gender.
Obligating recipients of ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming) funding to show they have wage parity and are actively recruiting women is another idea, Connolly said.
The newly released study also showed that men in Wyoming consistently receive workplace benefits in greater numbers than women, which is something Connolly would like to address, she said.
The study includes its own list of potential solutions, drawing from policies implemented by other states.
Around the country, organizations are supporting women to run for office and prepare them for positions on appointed state boards.
Simon, through her work for the Wyoming Council on Women’s Issues, is studying the gender balance on the state’s appointed boards and commissions and working to move the needle to better reflect the gender balance of the state.
She is also publishing a report on wage gap data in Wyoming and working to make child care more accessible through initiatives that explain its economic benefits to the community as a whole.
Having accurate data is important for all those efforts, Simon said.
“If you can’t measure it you can’t change it,” she said.
Legislators, Connolly said, have the power to allocate the state’s funds, and they can direct that money toward things that fairly value the contribution of Wyoming’s workers.
“Economic self-sufficiency in general is a benefit not only to women but to her family and her community as well,” Connolly said. “There is no stability in vulnerability, and what the wage gap does is add to vulnerability.”