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Utah woefully lags in gender wage gap, stays equal to 2017 numbers

By Genelle Pugmire - | Oct 5, 2021

Tim Vandenack, Special to the Daily Herald

Susan Madsen, director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, addresses a gathering of the Weber County Republican Women on Sept. 13, 2021, at The Ice Sheet in Ogden.

The Utah Women and Leadership Project has released a 2021 update on the gender wage gap in Utah — and the numbers show nothing has changed since 2017.

“The gender wage gap is the difference between what women and men earn for performing full-time, year-round paid work,” according to Susan Madsen, director of the project.

Nationally, women earn 16%-18% less than men. Although the gap has substantially narrowed from 41% when the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, varying reports estimate that, depending on the rate of change, it may take anywhere from 40 to 130 years to close the gap, the study overview said.

Estimates suggest that over a 40-year career, the wage gap can amount to a lifetime earnings deficit of $80,000 to $800,000, Madsen noted.

“In Utah, women earn approximately 30% less than men, ranking close to last in most state comparisons which is consistent with what we reported in 2017,” Madsen said.

With approximately 60% of women over 16 years old participating in the labor force, this topic is highly relevant for Utah.

“This is a big finding but a sad one,” Madsen said. “The nation has shifted up, but we’re not seeing much in state of Utah. I don’t think it’s going to change on its own.”

Madsen notes the topic is “shunned by the Utah State Legislature. They are saying it’s a myth.”

Madsen believes it’s partly because Utah is a “family-friendly” state and that women work for a supplementary income.

“Families are changing,” Madsen said. “The wage gap is having an effect on single women and mothers. Forty percent are living in the poverty level.”

“Closing the gender wage gap will strengthen economic stability and prosperity for families, communities, and the state,” she added.

Madsen noted that http://WalletHub.com recently ranked Utah as the worst state in the U.S. for women’s equality. It ranked Utah at 44th for workplace environment, 49th for political empowerment and last in education and health.

“That’s not helpful for our reputation or to attract women to the state,” Madsen said.

Madsen said one of the big things that might help Utah women is to have more women running, and winning, for public office where they can make a difference.

The women’s leadership project study shows that multiple factors influence the gap including occupational segregation, structural dynamics of the labor market, human capital or productivity factors and gender discrimination and bias.

Socialized cultural norms and attitudes also interact with these factors and affect women’s educational, career and work-life choices. Although the pay gap is substantial among all American women, it is even higher for women from specific racial and ethnic groups. Compared to the earnings of non-Hispanic white men, woman who are Black, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander make 63% on the dollar, Native American women make 60% and Hispanic/Latino women make 55%.

Furthermore, all women nationally earn less than men in their same racial or ethnic group. Along with race/ethnicity, other additional intersectional factors — such as sexual orientation, gender identity and disabilities — compound to widen the gap, the study revealed.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, occupations and industries that women dominate were disproportionately impacted by layoffs, furloughs and potential exposure to the virus,” Madsen said. “In addition, because women do more unpaid care work than men, women were more likely to take unpaid leave or to leave the workforce altogether when schools, daycare and other care options closed.”

“These circumstances may end up widening the wage gap in future years as breaks in labor force participation affect experience, skill development, and earnings (e.g., the wage gap is smaller for older women who have worked continuously),” Madsen added.

More generally, career breaks related to caregiving affect pay (particularly for low to middle earners) and other factors related to career success, such as discrimination or how employers perceive women’s competence and commitment, study showed.

Conversely, working fathers do not typically experience such setbacks and often experience benefits from parental status.

“These examples demonstrate just a few of the ways that women’s work-related options and decisions are influenced by structural barriers and cultural norms that can have long-term ramifications,” Madsen said.

Many Utah women work in lower-paying sectors (e.g., health services and office support) with little career advancement and are more likely than women nationally to work part time and therefore have fewer benefits, the study noted.

Utah women have also moved more slowly into historically male-dominated, higher-paying occupations. Although recent data shows that Utah women earn slightly more bachelor’s degrees than men, they are less likely to earn graduate or professional degrees that lead to higher pay.

“Utah women’s labor force participation has increased over the last 50 years and — despite family variables just described — Utah women actually have a higher labor force participation rate than the national average (due to our younger labor force),” Madsen said.

Notably, more than half a million Utah women are single (i.e., never married, divorced, separated or widowed). Female heads of household are also growing in prevalence; almost 25% of Utah mothers are the primary or sole breadwinner and 50% contribute at least 25% of their family’s total income.

As one set of researchers noted, “When a phenomenon, such as the wage gap, can be explained by various factors, it does not mean the phenomenon doesn’t exist. In fact, those explanations are the exact factors to look at when identifying interventions,” the study concludes.

Actions to remove equal pay barriers will improve the lives of Utah’s women, their families and the economic wellbeing of all, Madsen added.

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