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Legally Speaking

 

Issue: December, 2005
Author: Cynthia M. Lummis

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Understanding Wyoming's Woeful Wage Gap

The first woman in the world to vote while exercising full voting rights with men was Louisa Swain, who cast her historic ballot in Laramie, Wyoming on September 6, 1870. Both Mrs. Swain and the Territory of Wyoming made history that day, Wyoming having granted women equal voting rights fully fifty years before the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution afforded all American women the same privilege. Yet, 135 years after Wyoming earned the title ‘The Equality State,’ women in Wyoming earn only 64.4 cents for every dollar earned by men for full-time, year-round work – the worst gap in pay between men and women of any state in the nation, according to a University of Wyoming study.

Even within the Intermountain Region, where the wage gap is wider than in most regions, Wyoming is dead last.

A college education creates quantifiable wage–earning opportunities. If, then, knowledge is power, the current trend of women in college is encouraging. Women and men in Wyoming have very similar education levels. Census 2000 shows that 30.8% of Wyoming women have a high school or equivalent degree, 9% have associate degrees, 15.1% have bachelor degrees, and 4.4% have master degrees. In comparison, 31.2% of men have a high school or equivalent degree, 7% have associate degrees, 14.8% have bachelor degrees, and 4.8% have master degrees.

College enrollment of women in Wyoming currently exceeds that of men. At the University of Wyoming, women make up more than half the full-time undergraduate class, and over 60% of part-time undergraduates; women also comprise over half of the full-time graduate students, and over 70% of part-time graduate students.

Why, then, in an environment of comparable educational achievement, does Wyoming have such a wage gap?

A study funded by the Wyoming Legislature and published by the University of Wyoming in May 2003 found that the higher paying jobs in Wyoming were concentrated in areas such as mining, transportation and utilities, and that most of the men in the state are more often employed in these industries. Many of the jobs in these sectors do not require college degrees. Current projections show that only 9 of 50 occupations in Wyoming require an associates degree or higher. Further, Wyoming women work more often in occupations that pay less than traditionally male occupations.

Wyoming had 13,591 males employed in the mining industry in 1999, compared to 1,758 females. In construction, males held 18,776 of the jobs, and females 2,105. The opposite is true when looking at the education, health care and social service fields; in these lower paying fields women held 38,513 jobs compared to 13,224 males. In some of the lowest paid jobs in the hotel and restaurant industries, women outnumbered men by 11,426 to 7,495, and in retail jobs 15,876 to 12,581.

When considering all Wyoming workers, women spend less time at work than do men. Seventy-one percent of women prefer jobs with more flexibility and benefits than jobs with higher wages, and nearly 85 percent of women who are offered flexible work arrangements by their employers have taken advantage of this flexibility. Further, women are more likely to enter and leave their employment to raise children or take care of elderly parents. Working mothers are nearly twice as likely to take time off to care for their children as are working fathers. More women than men work part-time. While part-time work increases flexibility, the employee often loses out on promotions and pay increases as a result.

As in other states, the number of women heads of households in Wyoming is rising – homes in which a woman is both the primary caregiver and the only breadwinner. In such households, the number of children being raised below the poverty level is alarming, and the eventual impacts on the Wyoming economy, in terms of remedial education, social services, and the costs of substance abuse and corrections are staggering.

To reduce its wage gap, Wyoming employers and policymakers must first develop an awareness and an understanding of the specifics of Wyoming’s wage disparity based upon solid facts. Some approaches suggested by the data are to broaden educational and vocational training opportunities for Wyoming workers, and focus those opportunities toward specific careers that pay livable wages, develop self-employment training, improve the infrastructure in Wyoming communities so they can diversify their economic bases, and encourage employers to consider family-friendly workplace options such as telecommuting, flex-scheduling, and job sharing.

Perhaps most importantly, we as a state need to increase the number and type of higher paying jobs which require and take advantage of increasing educational achievement. Ultimately, the public and private sectors must coordinate to eliminate Wyoming’s deplorable distinction of having the worst pay gap in the nation. So if you are an employer, pay your employees a livable wage (contact the Wyoming Business Council to find out what constitutes a livable wage in your community). If you are a lawyer hiring a new law school graduate, offer the woman applicant the same compensation as her male counterpart (the average starting salary of a woman graduate of the University of Wyoming College of Law is currently less than the average starting salary of a male graduate of the University of Wyoming College of Law). If you are on a bank board of directors, find out if your bank inadvertently practices discriminatory lending practices toward single women customers (I hear this complaint more than any other from women around Wyoming). There are dozens of ways that each of us can help.

In 1926, Nellie Tayloe Ross, Wyoming’s first and last woman governor wrote: “A woman will succeed or fail, just as a man will succeed or fail, and it is difficult to understand why a generation which has been brought up under the coeducational system of the American public schools should imagine that there is any real difference in the manner in which men and women approach intellectual or practical problems.”

At the rate of progress achieved over the past ten years, women will not achieve equal pay for more than 60 years. That means that my daughter’s granddaughter – and yours – may in her lifetime enjoy equal pay with her male co-workers in Wyoming. Our state, ‘The Equality State,’ can and must do better than that.


Cynthia M. Lummis graduated from the University of Wyoming with a Bachelors in Animal Science in 1976 as well as a Bachelors in biology in 1978. In 1979, Cynthia was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives - the youngest women ever elected to the Wyoming Legislature. She returned to the University of Wyoming for her law degree, which she received in 1985. Cynthia currently serves as the State Treasurer for the State of Wyoming.


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