There are solutions for Utah’s complex gender wage gap, experts say

(Becky Jacobs | The Salt Lake Tribune) Susan Madsen, front left, and Katie Hudman, front right, speak Thursday at a briefing about the gender wage gap held by the Utah Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law in Salt Lake City.

Without changes, the state’s gender wage gap won’t close until 2106, one researcher said. Without mandates or changes to state law, others said, businesses won’t take steps that would help it close sooner.

And “the elephant in the room" during these debates "is family care responsibilities,” added Günseli Berik, a professor of economics at the University of Utah.

Local and national experts this week offered potential solutions for state’s wage gap to a Utah advisory committee that will later make recommendations to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Utah women earn 70 cents per dollar earned by men, when looking at median annual earnings for full-time, year-round workers, said Valerie LaCarte, a postdoctoral research fellow with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, who had also described the possible persistence of Utah’s gap. Across the U.S., women earn 80 cents per dollar, she said.

“It’s pathetic. And on top of that, minorities are paid even less,” said Jonathan Thorne, an attorney focused on employment and labor law with Strindberg & Scholnick in Salt Lake City. In Utah, Hispanic women earn 47% of what white men earn, according to LaCarte.

Committee member Virginius Dabney, a St. George lawyer, asked the experts: If you had to propose one solution to address the gap, what would it be?

Thorne said he would prohibit employers from asking about past salaries and have them “base wages on merit and experience.” During the 2019 Utah Legislature, Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, proposed a bill to do this, but it didn’t make it out of committee.

Female-dominated occupations, such as teachers, nurses and secretaries, tend to pay less than male-dominated fields, LaCarte said — but the men in these jobs still earn more than the women, she added.

Women also tend to start out at lower pay than their male counterparts, according to Katie Hudman, an attorney with Employers Council Utah. That has to be addressed, said Dan Kuang, who advises companies on pay disparity with Biddle Consulting Group in California.

“Starting salary explains most of the variability in pay," Kuang said.

Berik said that businesses need be required to examine their pay structures and make them provide equal pay for equivalent work. It’s not an easy thing to do, she said, and "if it’s voluntary, it would not go very far.”

Jonathan Ruga, of Patriotic Millionaires, said Utah also needs to raise the minimum wage and subminimum tipped wage, which affects women and, particularly, women of color, who hold many of these jobs. The Millionaires are an organization of “high-net worth Americans, business leaders, and investors” focused on building “a more stable, prosperous, and inclusive nation,” according to their website.

The causes of the gap extend beyond numbers to workplace discrimination, unconscious bias, education and social norms, experts said.

Hudman said she was recently driving her 7-year-old daughter and one of the girl’s friends to a park, and they were behind a delivery truck. The friend was “totally surprised” when she saw the truck driver was a woman.

“One of the arguments that’s always said … is well, it’s women’s choice. It’s just what they do. They’re choosing to stay home," Susan Madsen, professor of leadership and ethics at Utah Valley University, said. . "... But when you’re socialized a certain way, you really don’t believe you have choices.”

While Utah women are pursuing postsecondary education, it’s not at the level of women across the U.S., Madsen said. And the women in the state tend to pursue lower-paying and stereotypically female fields, she said.

At YWCA Utah, Erin Jemison, the group’s public policy director, said they regularly hear from women struggling to afford childcare and eldercare. People have posted on Facebook yard sale pages to find someone to babysit so they can go to work or an interview, according to Jemison.

Women in Utah work in part-time positions at a higher rate than the national level, according to LaCarte. Jemison shared an anonymous anecdote from a person who said, "Part-time jobs are typically hourly pay, and you don’t have leave. So then you are stuck without pay. You are making a choice. ‘My son is sick today, so I’m missing out on five hours of pay that I needed for groceries.’”

When women take breaks from the workforce to have children, it affects their pay when they return, according to the panelists. Then they may struggle with finding flexible jobs or plans that allow both parents to help take care of the family, Jemison said.

Discrimination and unconscious bias prevent women from getting into higher-paying jobs, Madsen said. After a recent presentation she gave on benevolent sexism, she said a man told her, “I think I do this and didn’t realize I was doing this.” The man used to take a male employee along to conferences, according to Madsen, but when a woman took the role, he was uncomfortable and didn’t offer her the same opportunity.

Additional written testimony for the committee can be submitted to afortes@usccr.gov until Nov. 3.

The committee had previously voted to focus on the gender wage gap after being “tasked with conducting a qualitative study on a civil rights topic unique to their state,” according to Ana Fortes, a civil rights analyst with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The day-long public briefing was held Thursday at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law in Salt Lake City.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.