Utah now has America’s biggest gender wage gap — women earn 70 cents on the dollar compared to men

In this Feb. 6, 2018, photo, shows Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla speaking during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah Republican lawmakers shut down discussion of a bill Tuesday, Feb. 13, that would study whether women working in some state government offices are paid less than men. Escamilla would ask the state to spend $125,000 to have a university take an in-depth look at whether men and women with similar jobs and backgrounds are paid differently. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Utah has foundered in recent years near the lowest rung of states for its pay gap between men and women — usually ranking second- or third-worst. Now, a new study says Utah has hit rock bottom, or at least is in a tie for it with Louisiana.

Women who work full time and year-round in both states on average earned only 70 cents on the dollar in 2016 compared with men, according to a new study using U.S. Census data by the American Association of University Women.

Economists say Utah’s gap is wide for many reasons: Its women have more children than average, likely causing absences that hurt their tenure and experience. They also tend to choose lower-paying careers, have lower college graduation rates and suffer widespread gender discrimination in pay.

The new study was released in advance of “Equal Pay Day” on Tuesday, the symbolic annual date that demonstrates how women on average have to work more than three months longer to earn the same salary as men.

Nationally, the study said the gap for women is 80 cents on the dollar and has narrowed by only 7 cents in the past 20 years.

“Women in Utah — and all over the country — are sick of unequal pay,” said Kim Churches, chief executive officer at AAUW. “Pay inequity harms our families and employers, while also robbing our economy of billions of dollars. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to close the pay gap, and do it soon.”

A separate study last year by the National Partnership for Women and Families said Utah had the third-worst gender wage gap among the states — at 71 cents on the dollar — behind Wyoming and Louisiana.

In 2016, a study by the National Women’s Law Center said Utah had the nation’s second-worst “lifetime wage gap” — behind Louisiana — at 67 cents on the dollar. Over a 40-year career, that meant a typical woman would earn $663,440 less than a typical man.

The latest study says all states have gender wage gaps. The narrowest is in New York, where women earn 89 cents on the dollar compared with men, followed by California, 88 cents; and Florida, 87 cents.

High birthrate lowers women’s wages

Carrie Mayne, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said that perhaps the biggest reason for Utah’s pay gap is the state’s high birthrate, annually at or near the nation’s highest.

If women leave the workforce to bear or care for children, “that’s going to affect their overall salary trajectory,” she said. “You’re no longer there increasing your experience and your tenure. So if and when you re-enter, you are going to have lost ground.”

Mayne added, “If we have more women having children, and more women having more children, we are feeling that effect in a much greater way than other states,” helping to land Utah at the bottom of the rankings.

Erin Jemison, public policy director at YWCA Utah, said the high number of children in the state works against women’s pay in another way.

“They are often penalized for not being able to work long or inflexible hours,” she said. “Because women are still responsible for a greater share of caregiving and home responsibilities, they end up being penalized.”

Women concentrate in lower-paying occupations

Mayne said another issue that contributes to lower pay for women — in every state, not just Utah — is that “they are concentrating in certain occupations that tend to be lower-paying. The opposite could be said for men.”

For example, in Utah computer and mathematical occupations, “82 percent of people holding those types of jobs are men. Only 18 percent are women,” Mayne said. “Those are obviously going to pay high wages.”

Susan Madsen, a Utah Valley University professor who directs the Utah Women & Leadership Project, said studies show many young Utah women do not even consider majoring in such fields. “They never even see it as a possibility,” so high-tech companies here often import many of their female workers from out of state.

| Courtesy Photo Susan R. Madsen, UVU

In lower-paying personal care and services jobs — such as hairstylists and nail technicians — 80 percent of workers are women and 20 percent are men. In teaching, 29 percent are men and 71 percent are women.

Another problem is obtaining education. “Compared to the nation, Utah women attend and graduate in lower percentages than women across the nation,” Madsen said, and that hurts their earnings.

Madsen said another problem in Utah is that women hold relatively few management positions, which pay more. “The 2016 Census says that nationally 40.2 percent of management jobs are held by women, while in Utah we have only 32 percent of management jobs held by women.”

Wage discrimination

Finally, wage discrimination is seen as a problem.

“Given all the things you hear from working women around the state,” Mayne said, “it definitely exists. But it likely doesn’t explain the whole 30-cent gap that we see.”

Jemison said that after controlling for other causes, “there is still 10 to 15 percent of [the gap] that is unexplained by anything other than discrimination.”

Madsen said some recent national studies figure discrimination creates about 8 percent of the gap — but that is on the national wage gap of 20 percent. Utah’s gap is higher, so she said some studies have suggested discrimination may be more prevalent here in part because of cultural issues where men have dominated leadership roles.

The AAUW, which released the study, uses Equal Pay Day to urge states to adopt stronger equal pay laws. It says Utah has among the weakest state laws and should ban discriminating or retaliating against individuals who sue for equal pay.

Madsen said Utah needs funding for academic studies to look at the causes of the wage gap here to help identify possible solutions.

But Republican lawmakers this year shut down discussion on a bill that would study whether women working in some state government offices are paid less than men. The Senate Business and Labor Committee never voted directly on SB152 by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and instead adjourned after a brief hearing on it.

Jemison, with the YWCA, also suggested, “We need to look beyond anti-discrimination approaches” and push to close the wage gap by improving “paid leave, more flexible work environments and helping to reduce barriers to staying in the workforce after women have a child.”

She added, “We’ve got to think broader if we’re going to close that gap.”