Unaffordable Utah: Fixing The US’s Worst Gender Pay Gap
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Utah’s rosy economic picture has a dark underbelly: the worst gender pay gap in the nation that only seems to be getting worse.
“It’s a tough one,” said Erin Jemison, the policy director at YWCA Utah. “We consistently come up as the worst state in terms of the gender wage gap in the country.”
Women in the Beehive State earn 69.8% of what their male counterparts make, according to YWCA’s most recent “Well-Being of Women in Utah” report. On the national average, women make 80% of what men earn.
The YWCA’s report indicated no progress in narrowing Utah’s pay gap since its last report in 2016 — in fact, the pay disparity grew slightly.
‘It Could Happen to Anyone’
“It’s something that we need to change,” said Luz Escamilla, a state senator and recent Salt Lake City mayoral candidate. “I don’t think anyone is proud of us having to be ranking that low.”
The Democratic lawmaker said you can count her among the women affected by the gender pay gap.
“I was shocked,” she said. “It has happened to me, so I know it could happen to anyone.”
The discovery of a pay disparity surprised her since she has a master’s degree and is used to fighting for others on Capitol Hill.
“Frustrated,” the mother of six said, “but more embarrassed about, ‘How did I miss this on my own? What just happened?’”
Escamilla, who works in banking, thanks the male supervisor for noticing and fixing the pay inequality but doesn’t know when or why her personal pay gap started.
“We don’t get trained in school to advocate for ourselves,” she said. “Maybe I should have asked, ‘Hey, are you sure this is what I’m supposed to be making?’”
Utah’s large income gap is part of the reason Wallet Hub ranked the state dead last for women’s equality. The 2019 “Best & Worst States for Women’s Equality” report also factored in education, health and political empowerment to give Utah the worst ranking.
“There is no question, there is a wage gap,” said Dr. Susan Madsen, professor of leadership and ethics at the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University.
While experts in Utah agree the gap exists, they quickly point out how complicated it is to narrow down an exact cause.
“There’s a lot of work to do in society with men and with women,” Madsen went on to say.
Some elements of the wage gap, Madsen said, are ingrained with biases — some of them unconscious — and the messages we send to girls.
“Our sons get socialized as, ‘I get paid when I do work,’” Madsen explained, “and daughters are socialized, ‘I need to serve. I need to help the family. I need to do those kinds of things.’”
And when it comes to college and career choice, Madsen said girls are sometimes told “that they need to do things that they can very tightly link to motherhood.”
That can lead to “occupational segregation” where wages are suppressed in fields with a lot of women, like teaching and nursing.
“If something changed suddenly in the State of Utah and more men were going into nursing, the nursing salary would immediately go up,” Madsen said.
Jemison at the YWCA said just a small percentage of the wage gap can be attributed to discrimination from the get-go.
“We don’t see men and women getting paid differently — on a broad scale — when they’re first coming out of school or in those first few years of their career,” she said. “It is rarely the case of me as a supervisor sitting down with a male employee and a female employee and saying, ‘I’m going to pay you, the female employee, less than you for the same job with the same qualifications.’”
But as the years progress, she said there are workplace and cultural issues that affect a woman’s pay, including the so-called “motherhood penalty.”
Whether it’s caring for kids or an aging parent, Jemison said men and women can both suffer professionally if they have caregiving responsibilities.
“We have a work culture that rewards people who are available all the time and can work any hours that they are asked to,” Jemison said.
Another barrier for women in the workforce? What’s called benevolent sexism — when women aren’t given promotions or invited to important business functions because a boss doesn’t want to take them away from their families.
“Women often don’t get the invitations because people are trying to look out for them,” Madsen said.
“How do we need to reimagine the work culture?” Jemison asked. “And I think Utah is the place to do it so we aren’t asking people to choose between work and family.”
To correct the problem, Escamilla says the state needs to lead by example. When the legislative session starts in January, she plans to ask for an independent study of what Utah pays its employees.
“I feel very passionate about this,” she said. “It’s an issue of fairness that you want for your daughter, for your mom, for your sister. Fairness — not a special treatment — just fair.”
Madsen said it’s good for a business’s bottom line to improve the workplace for women.
“You are more innovative as a company, you make better decisions as a company, and you actually make more money in companies if you have women in top leadership teams and on boards,” she said.
But she said it’s not enough just to have conversations, give encouragement and establish best practices.
“I, probably in the last year, have come to the conclusion that if we don’t have some public policy, some legal kinds of things, that we’re not going to move the needle in Utah,” Madsen said.
One of those measures could come from Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Salt Lake City, who is proposing a bill that would prohibit an employer from asking about a job applicant’s salary history.
“What’s motivated me is that I have granddaughters,” Wheatley said. “This is a bill that will benefit everyone.”
In addition to barring the question on the application and interview process, the prospective employer couldn’t go around the applicant and get the salary history from other sources.
“This question could not be asked,” Wheatley explained. “There would be penalties applied.”
Wheatley calls it a family bill that would create an equal playing field, a reset button for someone’s career, so that low pay doesn’t perpetuate from one job to the next.
“This will help women in the long run and it will help decrease that gap,” he added, “and it’s going to benefit our children.”
Jemison and Madsen said the bill is one of the most promising policy practices. If it passes, Utah would be one of more than a dozen states with such a law on the books.
“We absolutely need this kind of legislation,” Madsen said.
But more could be done. Around the country, laws with more teeth exist, including allowing employees to sue for lost wages and prohibiting retaliation if an employee discusses their wages with others.
Instead of waiting for the laws to catch up, men and women can start narrowing the wage gap by not providing a salary history when applying for a new position. Instead, ask the company for a salary range from the start.
Before negotiating pay for your current position or a new one, experts advise to research compensation data by talking to fellow workers in the industry and searching online resources.