Wyoming women earn only 69 cents compared to every dollar earned by men. Dr. Cathy Connolly, professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wyoming, has researched and analyzed the state’s huge gender wage gap and its impacts for many years. We recently asked her to discuss some of her new findings in the latest Wyoming Women’s Foundation report, “The Wage Gap between Wyoming’s Men and Women: 2016.”
Better Wyoming: Have there been a lot of significant changes since the last time you studied the gender wage gap issue in Wyoming?
Cathy Connolly: There have been some changes in [the state’s] ranking. Wyoming went from 51st to the 49th largest wage gap. [Note: The rankings include all 50 states and the District of Columbia.] We have seen some new trends — we’re seeing more women graduate from college, and that means our ranking for women who have at least a four-year degree or higher has risen significantly.
Another trend is that our median wages for both men and women have increased. That hasn’t impacted the wage gap that much because men’s wages have risen almost as much as women’s wages.
I don’t think the county rankings have changed that much, in terms of which ones were at the top and which ones were at the bottom. Based on what we saw, the counties with service industries and government jobs are closer to the top and those with extractive industries are closer to the bottom.
BW: You have your recommendations at the end of the report. Did you have many changes in the recommendations you made this year to help close the gender wage gap?
CC: There is a national movement for wage transparency right now, and there is evidence that transparent wages help to alleviate both discrimination and the wage gap. That’s a significant [recommendation] that was added.
BW: Is education — women training for higher-paying jobs — still one of the most important recommendations?
CC: It’s absolutely clear; women with a four-year degree or higher make a median wage of about $38,000 a year. If women don’t have a high school diploma, they’re in the mid-20s. That’s a hard wage to live on in Wyoming.
BW: Particularly if you’re a single parent — I don’t know how you could do it.
CC: It’s an appallingly low wage, and the reality is that women with college degrees make less than men who are high school graduates. In the years I’ve been studying the issue, that reality hasn’t changed. It is a revelatory statistic.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is that we haven’t seen any kind of economic diversification that has made a meaningful impact on the kinds of occupations men and women get and the wages that are associated with them. We all want economic diversification and we can say that all women should be working in men’s jobs and make more money, but the reality is that the economic mix we have today doesn’t look much different than it did 15 years ago. We find men in jobs that employ three or four men and we find jobs that employ one woman, and there’s not been much change in that.
BW: Is there anything the state can do, or does private industry have to come in and offer better paying jobs?
CC: There’s two things that I think can happen. There’s economic diversification with new progressive industries that have competency-based wage scales. The other is that we need to take a good look at state and government wages as they compare to private industry. One of the things that’s been found recently is that for individuals in Wyoming who are doing comparable work between the private and public sectors, we see that public sector workers are being paid less. Our understanding is that more women work in the public sector, whether they have state, federal or local employment. That’s relevant.
One of the things we can do as a state is that we have control over the wages of state workers, and the reality is that the wages the state sets percolates throughout the [community] as well as the school district. The fact is that between a quarter and one-third of workers in Wyoming work in some public sector capacity. That’s not an irrelevant economic sector in this state. It’s not a driver for taxes, but it certainly does drive what people make. And we have control over that. So when we don’t have wage increases associated with inflation or tweaking the wage scale so it relates more to what the private sector pays, then we’re doing public sector workers a disservice. That impacts the wage gap.
BW: What do you see as an example of an industry or business that would diversify the economy and help close the gender wage gap if they came to Wyoming?
CC: I’m in favor of the governor’s plan to bring in high-tech data centers. I’m also interested in bringing in things like tele-health. Data centers are still kind of a male-dominated field — a little less so than some of the others. But if we’re talking about health and education, you get a better mix of jobs. We could be and should be a center for doing tele-health and education, all those jobs that require high-tech skills with a highly educated population in order to provide services that can be exported beyond the state’s borders.
BW: What’s been the reaction of public officials and the general public to the new study?
CC: They go to the extremes, from one end to the other, probably with a majority of eye-rolling and “isn’t that awful.” People are frustrated. What I’ll call the negative responses are along the lines of “this data is meaningless,” that it’s all about individual choice and that our economic mix in Wyoming is heavily driven by the extractive industries. “If women want to make more money they simply need to do that work, so stop complaining and talking about this.”
A little bit less hostile are the comments that “I don’t want to hear about this unless you’re talking about apples to apples — I want you to talk about a male plumber with 13-and-a-half years of experience versus a female plumber who has the same number of years experience.” So then you have to go much more in-depth with that kind of comment regarding what it means to compare occupation to occupation — why this is a relevant piece of data to look at.
On the other extreme are the individuals who say we actually need to step in as a government, as a state, and do something. Do we incentivize companies differently than we have in the past? Do we mandate institutional changes that companies must do in order to attract and maintain female workers?
The initial gender wage gap had pages and pages of best practices from around the country, including things like unionization. Somebody brought that back up again at a talk I gave recently, because all of the data indicates that women in unions earn far more than women not in unions. I hadn’t heard anyone talk about that as a strategy for awhile. But the reality is that so few workers in Wyoming are unionized.
BW: This one has been on the recommendations list for quite awhile — train women to better negotiate for higher starting salaries. Are you making inroads with that?
CC: A couple of non-profits around the state did several workshops. It’s kind of like the wage transparency issue, that was something that was being advocated nationally. It’s true, everyone knows and recognizes that the higher wage you start with it’s more likely you’ll get higher wages down the line, because most raises are done on percentages rather than dollars. That’s why starting wages are so important. But that’s one of those kind of solutions that is wholly individual-based, and that’s only part of the problem. Do it, but it’s not a major push anymore because it’s just part of the language of hiring.
BW: Anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to address?
CC: There’s the data, and then there’s the explanation of what the wage gap is so it’s understood that it’s a relevant figure. All of the pushback [on the report’s data] doesn’t take into account that it’s a figure that is used nationally and across states. The issues that people have from Colorado to New York to Oklahoma to Wyoming are the same. Occupational sex segregation is the reality in any state. Ours might look slightly differently, but it’s the same no matter what state you’re in. We can use the earnings of full-time workers as a good benchmark to look at from state to state.
You can’t have a solution that is only that women should work like men. That devalues the work that women typically do now. That work is absolutely crucial to a successful society. We will always have teachers and healthcare workers and service workers, and we need them and we should value them.