SALT LAKE CITY — It’s no secret that women, on average, make less than men. In fact, the gender gap in wage earnings has been a hotly-debated subject for decades.
But a new study released Thursday morning found that Utah women make 69.8% of what Utah men make — a slight decrease from four years ago and a full 10 percentage points lower than the national average.
In fact, Utah’s gender wage gap is the starkest in the nation, according to the study, which was commissioned and executed by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Status of Women in the States, and Utah’s Young Women’s Christian Association.
Utah women working full-time make, on average, about $36,300 annually — nearly $4,000 less than women in other parts of the country and about $16,000 less than men in Utah, the report shows.
And it’s worse for women of color.
While white women in Utah who work full time earn an average of nearly $39,000 annually, Hispanic women earn almost $12,000 less than that. And though Hispanics are Utah’s largest minority at nearly 14% of the population, Hispanic women earn less than half of what white men earn — more than 20 percentage points lower than the wage gap between white women and white men.
Why the gap?
Women tend to enter industries that pay less; and while that is partly due to self-selection, it’s also caused by markets that are unfriendly to women or others who have the responsibility to nurture a family, said Valerie Lacarte, a postdoctoral research fellow with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and head researcher of the study.
“When women are put in a spot where they feel torn between their career choices and the home life, most women will choose the home life,” Lacarte said.
Women often enter industries they believe will allow them time to do what Lacarte calls “shadow work,” like caring for children, elderly relatives or someone with a disability.
Utah, in fact, has the highest percentage of women working part time, at nearly 38% of all employed women ages 16 and older. Yet, those working part time only make less than a third of what full-time workers make, according to the report. And only a little over 40% of all employed Utah women are in some type of managerial or professional role — a figure slightly less than the national average.
Lacarte believes there are two parts to closing the wage gap and allowing women to pursue both higher-paying fields or managerial positions that may require more time and attention.
“We can’t talk about gender equality in the labor market without talking about gender equality at home,” she said.
If a woman’s partner shoulders an equal amount of household and familial responsibilities, it opens her up to better employment opportunities, Lacarte said. But to make that possible, work culture needs to change for both men and women.
“Men are also interested in being closer to their families, but when you have a workplace that doesn’t even have policies like paid family leave or quality childcare (or) … the work culture that encourages men to take time off, then it will be hard for women to get over those issues at home,” she said.
“(We need to) encourage men … to understand that it’s for their benefit to have a workplace that is family-friendly.”
YWCA policy director Erin Jemison said making the workplace friendlier to families is one of her organization’s top priorities to improve life for women in Utah. In fact, the YWCA has been working to get a bill through the state Legislature for several years that would allow employees at workplaces with fewer than 50 staff members to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Currently, only workplaces with more than 50 employees can utilize FMLA benefits.
“It’s difficult. We’re a business-friendly state. We want to continue to be a business-friendly state. So how do we balance the needs of businesses and regulation that we know really supports working families?” she asked.
Things like flexible work hours or remote scheduling can actually offer businesses a competitive edge when recruiting and change the culture around work-home balance, she said.
Access to affordable childcare and caregiving is also important. More and more women are being pulled out of the workforce because of those responsibilities, Jemison added.
“That may be partly due to personal choice, but it may be due partly to that wage gap and the fact that you’re going to keep the person in the workforce who’s making more money. So how do we really start to change the culture around work in our state and in our country so that family is seen as a value and a priority for everyone, not just for women?”
But it’s not all rainclouds
More than 61% of Utah women participate in the workforce, placing Utah 15th in the nation, according to the report. And there has been a significant increase in businesses owned by Utah women over the last four years, though it’s still one of the lowest numbers in the nation.
Ninety percent of Utah women live above the poverty line, more than 3% over the national average; and almost 89% of Utah women ages 18 to 64 have health insurance.
The report also found Utah women vote at a higher rate than women in other parts of the country, with nearly 60% of Utah women voting in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Utah has also witnessed a significant rise in the number of women in the Utah House of Representatives over the last four years — up from 13.3% to 25.3%, but lower than the national average of 30%.