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Utah’s ‘wage gap’ is fourth-biggest in the nation

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By Lee Davidson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Sep 19 2013 07:50AM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:34PM

Kris Reese is among 19 women who teach at Farnsworth Elementary in West Valley City, compared with just two men.

She’s not in the teaching field to make a lot of money.

"Definitely not," she says. "I do it to make a difference. When you can look at someone and know you truly have made a difference in their life, that makes it worth it."

Economists say such attitudes draw many Utah women into "helping professions" such as teaching or social work. Men, on the other hand, vastly outnumber women in higher-paying fields such as engineering and science. This distinction is among factors opening a wage gap between men and women in Utah that is among the largest in the nation, according to new statistics released Thursday .

Another big reason for the gap is disparity in education — with far fewer women than men earning bachelor’s degrees in Utah.

On average, Utah women who work full time made 70 cents on the dollar compared with Utah men last year. That is the fourth biggest wage gap in the country — and is about 8 cents per dollar worse than the national average, according to new estimates in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey .

Adding up the gap • The typical full-time working woman in Utah makes $34,062 a year, compared to $48,540 for a male — a gap of $14,478 annually. The Utah gap is 44 percent higher than the national gap of $10,061.

Data also show that Utah women earn 9 percent less than the national average for women, while Utah males make 2 percent more than the national average for men.

Utah’s fourth-worst wage gap rating actually represents a slight improvement.

The previous year, in 2011, Utah women made 69 cents on the dollar compared to men, a penny worse.

At that time, it was the third worst wage gap in the country behind Wyoming and Louisiana.

Utah’s narrowing the gap by a penny in the past year allowed it to also slip past West Virginia, now bumping Utah to fourth worst.

"It goes up and down a lot year to year. Until it has made several years of consistent change, we ought not get too excited," says Lecia Langston, senior economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. "There has to be a lot of change in the labor force before there is a significant change [in the wage gap], and the labor force is big and doesn’t move very fast."

One of the causes for the wage gap is not so much that Utah men earn more than women in the same profession, but that women here often are drawn to occupations that pay less.

"Even when women do have a bachelor’s degree, they tend to go into ‘helping professions’ that pay less," such as teaching, Langston said. "We still have a very small percentage of women who are engineers and scientists. Utah does tend to fall behind the rest of the nation in moving into those careers."

College, marriage and kids • Perhaps an even bigger reason for the disparity "is the big gap in college education between men and women here. ... In Utah, we have by far the largest gap of any state in the nation" for the percentage of men vs. women who have bachelor’s degrees, she said. "And any economist knows that it really does pay to have an education. Wages are much higher with a degree."

Langston adds, "In Utah, we like to talk about how we’re so well educated compared to the United States. That’s true, but it’s the men who are well educated. Women are a little bit behind."

One reason for the contrast is suggested by other statistics released in Thursday’s Census data: Utah women have the youngest age at first marriage in the country, 24.1. They also have the nation’s highest fertility rate. Many drop out of college as they marry young to work or become full-time mothers.

"Academic studies show that when women marry early, it has a greater effect on their education than men," Langston said.

It also may lead women with more children to choose careers that are more family friendly, but perhaps don’t pay as well.

Julie Forsyth, a teacher at Calvin Smith Elementary in Taylorsville, says that’s partly why she became an educator. "The reason I went into it is I had children and could be at home with them more," including having the same holidays and summers off.

Some groups also say that job discrimination against women still persists. They call for more political action to help women caught in lower-paying jobs — and blame political inaction for many of their woes.

"After 11 years of no progress on equal pay, policymakers need to get moving to improve the country’s pay-discrimination laws, raise the minimum wage and remove barriers women face in higher-wage jobs," said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president of education and employment for the National Women’s Law Center.

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