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Pay disparity hurts women in Idaho

Women working in a Treasure Valley health care office.

Women working in a Treasure Valley health care office. Men out-earn women even in service jobs such as nursing – the largest profession in health care, which affects approximately 2.5 million women, according to Boise State University economist Samia Islam. Photo by Celia Southcombe.

Idaho has been showing up on flattering Top Ten lists lately, but it’s also on one that isn’t such good news: The state ranked No. 7 for the worst inequality of pay between men and women. Policy and business leaders are working to figure out why and what, if anything, to do about it.

(No. 7 is actually an improvement – a 2014 study by 24/7 Wall St. ranked Idaho No. 3.)

In 2015, full-time wage and salary Idaho women had median usual weekly earnings of $654, or 81.1 percent of the $806 median for their male counterparts, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS.

In Idaho, the ratio of women’s to men’s earnings has ranged from a low of 71.2 percent in 1998 to a high of 87.6 percent in 2013, according to the BLS, adding that the ratio in 2015 was the third consecutive year it exceeded 80.0 percent. But the women’s to men’s earnings ratio in Idaho decreased 4.4 percentage points from the previous year, noted BLS Assistant Commissioner for Regional Operations Richard Holden in a statement. Male state workers also earn more than their female counterparts, according to a recent article in Governing.

workforce-blurb-story-april-14Because they are paid less, women and women-led families are more likely to be in poverty, particularly as women age. “Lifelong wage disparities substantially weaken women’s retirement security,” wrote Samia Islam, associate professor in economics at Boise State University, in an email message. Nationwide, more than 12 percent of women 65 and older, and nearly 15 percent of women 75 and older, lived below the poverty line, which also increases healthcare costs, she added.

Luci Willits

Luci Willits

On a philosophical level, unequal pay hurts women’s place in society, said Luci Willits, who serves on the board of Go Lead Idaho, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization that motivates women toward leadership positions. “Having such a huge disparity in pay is a value statement,” she said. “If women aren’t paid equally as men, that shows a lack of value in the workforce.”

Pay disparity is bad for Idaho as well, said Craig Shaul, research analyst supervisor for the Idaho Department of Labor, in an email message. “Idaho’s median wage places it ranked 43 compared with other states,” he wrote. “To grow its economy, Idaho must develop its instate population into the skilled workforce through education and training, as well as attracting from out-of-state talent pools. Once here, Idaho must retain the workers. The most important factor to be competitive will be wages. Groups paid at lower rates than Idaho’s already comparatively lower wages than the nation can make this effort of attracting talent even harder.”

Some researchers contend that women’s lower pay is due to their life choices. While women are actually more likely to go to college than men, they tend to choose more service-oriented fields of study and jobs, look for jobs with more flexibility but that tend to pay less, don’t negotiate for salaries and raises as well, and are more likely to take time off from the workforce to raise children and support elderly relatives.

Craig Shaul

Craig Shaul

“They often will go into human service types of jobs,” such as teachers, social workers, and certified nurse’s assistants, said Jean Henscheid, interim director of the McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho, in Boise. “Those types of jobs, they require some kind of post-secondary education, but they are still not at the pay level that young men can get without a college degree” – positions such as construction workers, plumbers, and welders, she said. “Human services jobs just don’t pay like male-dominated jobs.”

But women’s life choices don’t explain all the disparity, wrote Islam. In fact, the gender pay gap is larger in higher-paying jobs. In addition, men out-earn women even in service jobs such as nursing – the largest profession in health care, which affects approximately 2.5 million women, she wrote. “About half of the gap was accounted for by employment and other measured characteristics such as demographic factors, work hours, experience, work setting, clinical specialty, job position, survey year, state of residence, and other factors,” she wrote. “But what about the other half?”

Samia Islam

Samia Islam

Go Lead Idaho is raising between $7,000 and $10,000 to produce an Idaho-specific study into gender pay disparity by the end of the year, Willits said. “People can dismiss national studies,” she said. But an Idaho-specific study with Idaho data could answer questions people have that national studies may not address, she said.

The Department of Labor is also increasing education and apprenticeship opportunities, such as encouraging women to enter fields such as computer science and management, which pay higher wages, Shaul wrote, noting that the pay gap among millennials is smaller. But it’s a slow process: According to the American Association of University Women, women won’t reach wage parity with men until 2152.

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