I was wondering if the time would ever come when people in the Equality State would finally get angry about the fact that women here make less than 70 cents for every dollar a man does.

Judging by the spirited, adverse reaction to comments about the gender wage gap made by Republican legislator Gerald Gay, that time is here.

Nationally women are paid 80 percent of what men earn, but Wyoming has fallen to a new low. Our rate was 69 percent in 2014, making it the third largest wage gap in the nation, behind only Louisiana and Utah. But Wyoming has now dropped to dead last, according to a new study released last week by the American Academy of University Women. In 2015, women here earned only a paltry 64 cents for every dollar made by men.

When I interviewed Gay (R-Casper) in a prelude to this year’s legislative session he called the gap between the earnings of women and men a “fact of life” that’s part of “the nature of Wyoming’s business and also the nature of gender politics.” What’s earned the ire of many women who read the piece is that Gay blamed women for the pay disparity.

“Men and women have different ways of going about taking time off — moms for maternity leave and that sort of thing,” said Gay, a 10-year legislator who is one of the most conservative House members. “Women are always going to take their full maternity leave, and there’s the dependability issue about whether they’re going to show up for things.

“Historically [women] tend to take every sick day that’s available with them, and that’s a gender thing,” he said. “They look at how many sick days you get in a year. Say you get 12 sick days a year. If they go for two years and they’ve only taken three sick days, they’re going to cash in the remaining 21 sick days. That’s a gender thing and it hurts getting [the gender wage gap] rectified.”

The interview was published last week on the Facebook page of Better Wyoming, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization based in Laramie. Not surprisingly, Gay’s comments were condemned by most readers, though Gay did have a few defenders. The reaction has been widely covered in the Casper Star Tribune, which reported that Gay’s write-in Democratic opponent in the November election, Debbie Bovee, has had positive response to her campaign in the wake of publicity about Gay’s comments.

Many lawmakers don’t see a gender wage gap

I’ve been asking GOP and Democratic lawmakers about the gender wage gap for the past two sessions, and a majority of Republicans have told me they don’t think it exists because in their own jobs women make exactly as much as men do. If they do believe it’s real, they maintain it is completely related to the fact that few women work in the higher-paying jobs in the energy industry.

While Gay acknowledged that the pay disparity is a problem in Wyoming, he said some of what he called the predictable “misuses and abuses” of women taking time off are “statistics that are written in stone.”

Based upon the research done by groups that have documented the gender wage gap for years, Gay’s statement is not true. The Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute released a study in July that concluded “the gender wage gap is real — and hurts women across the board.”

The EPI study should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the issue better.

“Too often it is assumed that this gap is not evidence of discrimination, but is instead a statistical artifact of failing to adjust for factors that could drive earnings differences between men and women. However, these factors — particularly occupational differences between women and men — are themselves affected by gender bias,” the EPI found. “Serious attempts to understand the gender wage gap should not include shifting the blame to women for not earning more. These attempts should examine where our economy provides unequal opportunities for women at every point of their education, training, and career choices.”

Gay told Casper Star Tribune reporter Laura Hancock that “women in the workforce traditionally take a disproportionate amount of their sick days off for other reasons than sick days. They take Junior to the hospital or go see Johnny’s soccer game.”

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The EPI study said women do take time off for different reasons than men do, but it’s because “social norms and expectations exert pressure on women to bear a disproportionate share of domestic work, particularly caring for children and elderly parents.”

One of the most thoughtful answers by a legislator to my gender wage gap question was made by Senate President Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie), who is not seeking re-election. Nicholas said he would like to know if Wyoming is attracting enough females into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) areas.

“Does it make a difference what career you choose, what education path you take?” he asked. “Certainly [researchers] understand the notion that a lot of our jobs are in the energy industry. But let’s go back and talk about the non-energy jobs and how do you get a good, strong, well-paying energy job, and the only way I know how to do that is through education.”

But the EPI study stressed that “women cannot educate themselves out of the gender wage gap.” It pointed out that women’s educational attainment actually outpaces men’s: 37 percent of women have a college or advanced degree, compared to 32.5 percent of men.

On average, women earn less per hour at every education level.

As for Nicholas’ curiosity about whether Wyoming attracts enough females into STEM areas, EPI said women may be discouraged from certain career paths because of industry culture. A 2008 study found that 52 percent of highly qualified females working for science, technology, and engineering companies quit their jobs, “driven out by hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

A key point made by EPI is that a woman does not simply choose a career that pays well, because many factors are at play. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, expectations set by those who raised her, hiring practices of firms, and widespread norms and expectations about work-family balance held by employers, co-workers, and society,” according to the study.

Little legislative interest in cutting gap

Rep. Bunky Loucks (R-Casper) told me he thinks the issue isn’t something that the Legislature needs to tackle. “I just hope everyone out there who’s an employer is honest and pays people what they’re worth,” he said. “Do you work harder than anyone else? It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, black or white or gay, we can’t legislate that stuff. We’re spending tax dollars trying to look at it too much.”

The only legislation related to the gender wage gap in the 2016 session last spring was House Bill 111, a wage transparency measure sponsored by House Minority Leader Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne). The proposal would have prohibited an employer from barring a worker from disclosing wage information to another employee. It’s a real-life problem: A woman can’t file a gender discrimination claim if workers can’t discuss their wages, because she would have no proof that the pay for men and women with the same duties and experience isn’t equal.

Only 20 members of the House — including all nine Democrats — voted for the bill, while 38 voted against it. But Throne didn’t seem discouraged. “It’s a matter of education,” she said. “We’ll keep bringing it back until it passes.”

Rep. Don Burkhart Jr. (R-Rawlins), who voted against Throne’s bill, said he believes “there’s some reality to [the gender wage gap] and some statistical anomaly.

“I do feel some women in professional jobs are better than men; they’re really go-getters,” he observed. “Maybe they feel they have something to prove.”

Yes, they do — that the gender wage gap exists and it’s not because women aren’t dependable, take too much sick leave or make bad career choices. The American Association of University Women backs transparency bills like Throne’s, plus other legislation such as requiring employers to post a salary range in job advertisements and prohibiting an employer from reducing another employee’s pay to comply with the law.

I hope the people who were angered by Gay’s response will keep up the fight and tell everyone —  especially legislative candidates — that it’s time for Wyoming to actually do something to close the gender wage gap.

Read Drake’s 2015 take: Wyoming doesn’t need more than a century to close gender wage gap.

 

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. After a 42 year career in the electrical generation industry, I can honestly say that particular industry seems to value women’s contributions to the workplace more than most industries. Our problem in that business was getting women to apply. It’s too bad because those are well paying careers with good bennies.