Utah's gender wage gap one of widest in the nation, USU study shows

Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller and Patricia Jones, CEO of the Women's Leadership Institute, speak  about the gender wage gap during a press conference on Nov. 30, 2018. Utah State University's Utah Women & Leadership Project released a study Tuesday that demonstrates that Utah has the fifth largest gender wage gap in the country.

Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller and Patricia Jones, CEO of the Women's Leadership Institute, speak about the gender wage gap during a press conference on Nov. 30, 2018. Utah State University's Utah Women & Leadership Project released a study Tuesday that demonstrates that Utah has the fifth largest gender wage gap in the country. (Marisa Bomis)

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OGDEN — Utah has the fifth largest gender wage gap in the nation, disproportionately affecting single mothers and women of color, the Utah Women and Leadership Project reported Tuesday.

Utah women on average make 70% of what men make, much lower than the national average of 82%, a compilation of research pulled from 60 sources shows.

This gap increases when considering intersectional factors like race, ethnicity, sexuality, parental status, gender identity and disability, a team with the project, which is part of Utah State University's Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, found.

The report defines the gender wage gap as "the difference between what women and men earn for performing full-time, year-round paid work," and notes that the gap has narrowed from 41% when the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963. Over a 40-year career, it is estimated that women would lose between $80,000 and $800,000 because of the deficit.

In Utah, the wage gap for every racial and ethnic group of women is wider than the national average, with the biggest gap being for Asian women who make 87% of what non-Hispanic white men make nationally — higher than any other ethnic group of women, and only 66% in Utah. Hispanic and Latina women make 49%, or less than half of what white men make in Utah.

Rebecca Winkel, a senior economic adviser at the American Petroleum Institute and a study author, said in a statement that unconscious, socialized norms and biases may influence employers' hiring, pay and promotion decisions in ways that perpetuate the gender wage gap.

According to the research, multiple factors play into the wage gap, like the fact that women-dominated fields generally pay less, offer fewer benefits and fewer opportunities for advancement; gender discrimination and bias; and, cultural norms and attitudes. Some business practices that perpetuate the wage gap include long or inflexible workdays, in-person requirements and requests for salary history during the hiring process.

More than half of adult women in Utah participate in the labor force, which is above the national average. A quarter of Utah mothers are the primary breadwinners for their families and half of Utah mothers contribute at least 25% of their family's total income. Add the fact that more than half a million women in Utah are single and that the poverty rate for female heads of households with small children is 40%, and it becomes apparent that single mothers — and especially single mothers of color — in Utah, bear the brunt of this economic disparity.

Because the pandemic disproportionately affected women both nationwide and statewide and large amounts of women were required to take unpaid leave when schools and child care options closed, the report states that the U.S. and Utah may see a widening wage gap in the future because of what some experts are calling the "she-cession."

According to Susan Madsen, founding director of the project and one of the study's four authors, some of the research included in the report indicates that "work done by women simply isn't valued as highly," citing that when women move into a typically male-dominated field, the average pay for the profession decreases, whereas when men move into a typically female-dominated field, the average pay for the profession increases.

Researchers with the Utah Women & Leadership Project address the common argument that women make less because they choose to enter into professions like teaching or nursing that pay less, but they explain that most researchers agree that women have "implicitly constrained choices" because of the cultural norms, attitudes and gender socialization and bias in which women are raised, especially in Utah.

Basically, yes, women choose these fields, but to what extent did their upbringing and socialization choose for them?

According to the research, Utah has one of the highest marriage rates in the nation, along with the earliest age for marriage. It also ranks fourth nationwide for fertility rate and first for the largest average household. Part of the reason there are so many large, young families is that Utah has highly religious residents, with the majority belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which holds marriage and family in high importance, above most else.

"Research also suggests that an association between the wage gap and religiosity, regardless of specific religion, is partially connected to social differentiation between genders. This is quite concerning information that must be addressed," Madsen said.

Because of the cultural norms and gender bias in Utah, which was recently ranked as the second-most sexist state in the country, women are more likely to feel pressured to not work outside the home, do more of the unpaid labor like household duties and child care, not pursue graduate degrees that might open up opportunities for higher-paying jobs and be seen as less authoritative in a business setting.

The report included a reference to a Y Magazine article on research by BYU political science professor Jessica R. Preece that looked into why women don't speak out even if they are qualified to do so, or if they do, how they aren't heard.

"As a society we have been 'slowly socialized over years to discount' female expertise and perspectives," the article by Brittany Karford Rogers states.

"To ensure Utah's vibrant economic future, it is critical to extend the prosperity and opportunity many Utahns enjoy to everyone," said Emily S. Darowski, assistant librarian at Brigham Young University and another of the study's authors. "This will come, in part, through concerted efforts by many stakeholders – including educators, employers, legislators, religious leaders and individuals – to help close the gender wage gap."

The researchers offer some potential ways to narrow the gender wage gap in Utah:

  • Encourage young women to get a secondary education and pursue career goals.
  • Provide resources for women of all ages to learn to navigate having a family and working.
  • Evaluate and adjust the norms or attitudes that "suggest implications for women who work outside the home or that put work and family priorities at odds without considering that success can be attainable in both areas."
  • Provide access to Utah organizations like the new state "returnship" program that helps women reenter the workforce.
  • Provide access to resources like Women Entrepreneurs Realizing Opportunities for Capital, that support equitable access to funding for female entrepreneurs.
  • Offering flexible or alternative work arrangements.
  • Create and strengthen laws that support pay equity and wage transparency.
  • Provide access to affordable child care.
  • Create better family leave policies.

"Forward-thinking companies that wish to thrive in a time of heightened economic and social awareness would do well to find ways to support female talent and develop female leadership in their organizations," Madsen said.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Utah women on average make 70% less than men make; they make on average 70% of what men make, according to the research.

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Jenny Rollins is a freelance journalist based in Utah and a former KSL.com reporter. She has a bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University and a master's degree in journalism from Boston University.


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