Wages for women in Utah decline, while they are going up nationally as growth is heavy in male dominated sectors

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction, a male dominated field, is booming in Utah, where the gender pay gap is the highest in the nation and women have actually seen their median wages declining in recent years.

Just days after Utah was deemed the second-most sexist state and the worst state for women’s equality in national reports, a new study shows wages for Utah women have actually declined in recent years.

That decline stands in contrast to national trends, which show a slight increase in women’s wages — and Utah’s pay gap between men and women already is the worst in the country.

“It does not bode well that we’re beginning to see this occur (in Utah),” said Chandra Childers, researcher at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Childers presented data on women’s employment, education, health and political participation at the Utah Women’s Policy Conference, hosted by the YWCA of Utah on Thursday in Salt Lake City.

The median wage decline — from a little more than $36,000 in 2015 to $35,000 in 2018 — was among the “most concerning” parts of a report that showed Utah underperforming the nation on several crucial measures of wellness — but showing success and rapid improvements in educational attainment, access to health insurance, and reductions in poverty, Childers said.

“We get all the Ds and the Fs — and then we get the voices here in the state that say, ‘Oh that’s about national sources, that’s about national women, it’s not really about Utah women,” said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research for the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. The findings in the new report, titled “The Well-being of Women in Utah in 2018,” sheds light on conditions that are unique to the state, Perlich said — some of which are very poor and some of which are more promising for women.

Utah women experienced the lowest rate of unintended pregnancy, low rates of violent crime, and high percentages obtaining bachelor’s degrees or higher.

But Utah women also had the fourth-highest suicide rate of any state — and it has risen since 2015. They ranked in the bottom 10 for voter registration and turnout, and in the bottom five for business ownership and employment in managerial or professional occupations. And while labor force participation was above the national average, Utah had the highest percentage of its employed women working part time.

The wage gap between men and women in Utah — 70 cents paid to women for every dollar paid to men — earned it 50th place among the states. With women’s wages decreasing here, parity appears to be far away.

“We’re not making much progress in Utah or outside of Utah,” Childers said. “And most of the progress we had closing the gender wage gap happened in the 80s and 90s.”

Racial disparity worsened the gap. Compared to white men — the largest share of Utah workers — all women received only 62.8 cents to the dollar. White women, the highest paid group of women, received 66.5 percent of what white men were paid; for Hispanic women, the lowest paid group, that dropped to 46.2 percent of white men’s wages.

“I hear people say, ‘Women should just chose better jobs,’ ” Childers said. But men and women are “highly segregated by occupation.”

“I understand the segregation here in Utah is even higher here than it is nationally. And nationally it’s pretty bad,” she said. “Construction, welding — and these are jobs that women can do — jobs that tend to [employ] men predominantly pay more than jobs that tend to [employ] women, even if they require a [similar] skill-level.”

Even when holding the same job title, women are paid less on average than are equally qualified men, largely because male-dominated industries pay more than industries that mostly employ women, Childers said. Men and women receive a lot of implicit messages about what kind of work is appropriate for them, she said. Women may be less likely to envision themselves in the highest-paying industries, and to begin planning and preparing for those careers, “until we get a certain number of women role models in those positions,” Childers said.

Utah’s tech industry is one such area where women may be left behind. As of last year, Utah had the fastest-growing tech industry of any state, and its employers have struggled to fill jobs. But Utah was ranked 51 (among all states and Washington, D.C.) for the share of science and technology jobs held by women, according to a 2016 report by researchers at Utah Valley University.

“Women comprise only 23.5% of all STEM-sector workers in Utah, as compared to 28.8% for women nationwide,” that report stated. “...Gender stereotypes and a scarcity of female STEM role models continue to affect decisions made by girls and women in regards to their education and future career.”