Working women

Minnesota has one of the highest labor force participation rates for women in the country, but the state’s pay gap is on par with the national average.

The median Minnesota man could have started working April 7 — the 97th day of 2019 — and still make the same amount of money the median Minnesota woman will make this year.

That’s because working women in Minnesota make about 73 cents for every dollar men make, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. For women of color, the gaps are even bigger.

Some of that’s because of the jobs men and women work: women disproportionately work in low-paying jobs and there are fewer women than men in top management roles. But despite state and federal laws that prohibit employers from paying women less than men for the same jobs, and differences in the jobs men and women work, experts say some of that pay disparity still has to do with discrimination.

Working women

Not so long ago, there weren’t as many women in the workforce.

The labor force participation rate — the share of people who work — for women has increased from 33 percent in 1948 to 57 percent today at the national level. In the same time frame, the labor force participation rate for men has declined from 87 percent to 69 percent.

Until somewhat recently, many women who wanted to work had just a few choices. People often say in those days, women could either be a nurse or a teacher, but it wasn’t far from the truth — there weren’t as many employment options available to women as men. Employers could legally fire a woman who became pregnant, and many women who did work quit to become homemakers once they had children.

That’s not necessarily the case anymore, as women’s access to education and employment has expanded and the economy has shifted as to make it tough to support a family on a single income. Civil rights laws have prohibited gender-based discrimination.

In 1963, the federal Equal Pay Act prohibited wage disparities for men and women working jobs at the same skill, level of experience and responsibilities. And in 1964, the Civil Rights Act made it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers on the basis of gender in workplace matters including pay.

In 1967, Minnesota passed its Human Rights Act, which added some of these protections to state law. And in 2014, Minnesota passed the Women’s Economic Security Act, strengthened protections for moms and moms-to-be in the workforce, and added other workplace protections for women.

Today, Minnesota has one of the highest labor force participation rates for women of any U.S. state, at 65 percent, compared to 76 percent for men.

Despite a higher share of women in the workforce in Minnesota and laws designed to equalize wages, the gap between women’s and men’s pay is on par with the national average, with the average woman making 73 percent of what the average man makes.

That’s not as bad as Utah, where the average woman makes roughly 60 percent of what the average man makes, but it’s not as good as in other parts of the U.S.

In Puerto Rico, the average woman earns about the same amount as the average man. In Washington, D.C., women earn 87 percent of what men earn. In Arizona; 80 percent of what men earn and in Maryland, 79 percent.

Structural differences

Some of the disparities in pay between men and women are due to gender differences in the kinds of jobs people work: there’s a higher proportion of women than men working jobs that don’t pay particularly well.

“Low wages can be found across the economy, but they’re particularly prevalent in what I call the care economy: education and care of children, the elderly and those who are disabled,” said state Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero. “That’s work historically done by women, and it continues to be done almost exclusively by women when it is paid.”

Another factor: Women often take time off to have children or care for aging parents. Working fewer hours means less pay.

But even when you look at women and men in comparable jobs with comparable experience, there’s a gap.

“If you look at servers, if you look at educators, those pay gaps exist,” said Kabo Yang, executive director of the Minnesota Women’s Consortium.

In Minnesota, the biggest gaps between men’s and women’s wages are in sales and related occupations, where women, on average, make 50 percent of what men make. In construction and extraction, women make just shy of 60 percent of what men make, according to Census data.

Men and women make about the same amount in health care support jobs, including personal care assistants and home health aides and in office and administrative occupations.

Further disparities

The pay gap gets much worse when you break it down by race and ethnicity.

The data MinnPost looked at didn’t have a race breakdown, but Yang said black women make 61 cents for every dollar white men make. Native American women make 58 cents for every dollar white men make. Hispanic and Latina women make 50 cents on the dollar white men make. On average, Asian women make 85 cents for every dollar white men make.

The discrimination women as a whole face in the workforce is compounded by stereotypes for women of color, Lucero said.

“Women who negotiate for a higher salary are seen as aggressive and being inappropriate and not grateful, whereas men are expected to negotiate for a higher salary,” she said. “You can imagine how race really compounds that with the narrative of angry women of color.”

And as more women become the primary breadwinners in their households, the persistent pay gap between women and men — and some of these deeper disparities — is an issue not just for women, but for families, Yang said.

What to do?

As persistent as these wage gaps are, Yang suggested several ways to shrink them.

In a number of cities and states, employers are not allowed to ask about the past salary of prospective employees, a measure designed to give a boost to those who have been historically underpaid.

Employers — and society at-large — need to better value the unpaid work women do at higher rates than men, whether that’s caring for children or aging parents, and not hold it against them in the workplace, Yang said.

Workplaces would do well to bring more women into leadership roles, Yang said. And research suggests that doesn’t just help women, but can help organizations be more effective.

And, she said, employers need to do pay audits to determine whether they have a pay gap in their workforce. If they find one, they need to take steps to eliminate it.

“We can’t continue to have women trying to be equal if they’re not getting paid an equal amount,” she said.

MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota.

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