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Despite Gains, Closing Wage Gap Could Take Decades

Sara Plourde

New Hampshire women had plenty to celebrate a year ago, when voters elected a woman to the corner office in Concord and sent the nation’s first all-female congressional delegation to Washington.

But while the state’s political leadership basked in the media attention, most New Hampshire women continued to struggle with unequal treatment on the job.

In 2011, women working full-time in New Hampshire made 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. That gap, measured in median weekly earnings, was larger in the Granite State than for the country as a whole, where women earned about 82 cents for every dollar paid to a man.

Women’s wages as a percent of men’s have been growing since passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. But, Kristin Smith, research assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and a family demographer at the Carsey Institute, says the pace of change has slowed considerably.

“The wage gap really decreased over the 1960s and ‘70s, and then it stalled out,” Smith says. “And it’s been really stalled out.”

Indeed, the gap in annual earnings between men and women narrowed by more than 10 percent during the 1980s. It closed by four percent during the 1990s and, since 2001, by less than one percent. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that, at the current rate, women won’t attain wage parity with men until 2056, another 43 years.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR
The wage gap has hardly narrowed at all in the past decade. Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Smith says two well-established factors drive the wage gap. Women are more likely to work in low-paying jobs, such as secretarial and childcare work, and to earn the minimum wage. About two-thirds of all minimum wage workers in New Hampshire in 2011 were women.

Women are also more likely to leave and re-enter the workforce, usually to become mothers. Research suggests women with children earn less because they have less job experience and because employers perceive they are less committed to their jobs than men.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR
As women get to child-rearing age, their workforce participation drops below that of men, and continues to stay lower. Data: Center for Public Policy/N.H. Employment Security

“Men are doing more housework than their fathers, for sure,” Smith says. “But women are still responsible for more of the family care, even in dual-earner families.”

Even within higher-paying professions, women’s earnings lag behind that of men. Some of that, Smith says, is explained by the “occupational segregation” that clusters women in less lucrative fields. Women physicians, for example, are more likely to be pediatricians, who earn less than surgeons, who are more likely to be men.

Less obvious is what’s behind the “same job, same qualifications” conundrum.

Research by the New Hampshire Women’s Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for greater social, political and economic opportunities for women, finds that the wage gap persists across occupations. In 2010, New Hampshire women working full time in management, business, and finance were paid 64 cents for every dollar paid to men in the same fields. In sales-related occupations, the gap was 68 cents.

Mary Jo Brown, chair of the group, says it’s one thing to attribute the wage gap to the choices women make. It’s another to ignore evidence that the choices themselves foster a bias that assumes all women offer less value to employers.

“If Sally and Sam both go in for an engineering job with the same resume and same qualifications, and Sally still walks out with less of a salary, why is that?” Brown says. “I think it’s hard for us to understand that there have been laws passed and that the world has changed and that men and women can do lots of the same jobs, but that there is this historical bias that we all carry that is hard to shake - females as caretaker, male as breadwinner.”

Smith says it’s more difficult to qualify, but there is evidence that a percentage of the wage gap can be attributed to discrimination. Researchers have sent male and female applicants with similar educational backgrounds and experiences to apply for the same job. The results suggest men more often land an interview or a job offer. Other research has found men are promoted more than women with equal experiences and qualifications.

“Discrimination is much more hidden today,” Smith says. “In the ‘50s, ‘60s, there was pretty blatant discrimination that today you’d say, ‘You can’t do that.’ But a lot of those sentiments still exist in the minds of a lot of people doing the hiring.”

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR
While still making less than similarly-qualified men, women do see a greater benefit from achieving higher levels of education than men do. Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The wage gap resonates across New Hampshire as a public-policy issue, Brown says. In 2011-12, the Women’s Initiative hosted two dozen “listening sessions” around the state, where participants identified the wage gap as the most pressing gender-equality issue.

That prompted a series of eight more sessions, where participants were asked to offer their ideas for how to solve the problem. The suggestions ranged from raising the minimum wage, to greater education and awareness, to teaching women how to be better negotiators.

“That’s a no brainer,” Brown says. “We have got to teach women of all ages better negotiating skills. It can equal the playing field in term of salary and/or benefits.”

Another suggestion was to help young women understand the long-term economic impact of their career choice; to think twice before becoming teachers and childcare workers and to consider careers in STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and math - that pay more.

That didn’t sit well with some traditional-thinking attendees, Brown says. These women - and they were mostly women - argued that the gap in median earnings wasn’t a wage gap at all, but simply a reflection of the personal choices women have always made.

“I agree - ultimately, that’s their decision,” Brown says. “But I think it’s important to clarify where women are making decisions that impact their wage gap and where they are subject to what may be a subtle form of discrimination.”

Brown says the Women’s Initiative plans to issue a policy brief on the wage gap early next year.

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