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One State That Could Take The Gender Wage Gap Head On

February 10th, 2015 | Bryce Covert

Bryce CovertOn Monday, Oregon lawmakers considered a pair of bills that could significantly reduce the gap in average earnings between working men and women, which currently means the state’s women make 80 percent of what men do.

House Bill 2006 would make it unlawful for employers to pay workers of different genders who do equivalent work differently. House Bill 2007 would make it illegal to punish workers who ask about or discuss their pay with each other.

The first bill’s language is subtle, but it could have important consequences for women in the state. As written, equivalent jobs wouldn’t rely on having the exact same role at the exact same company. Rather, equivalent jobs would be those that are the same when the required skills, training, education, effort, responsibility, and working conditions are the same. For example, women who coach girls’ teams couldn’t be paid less than men who coach boys just because boys’ teams bring in more money. Employers could still have differing pay grades based on merit, seniority, training, and education differences among workers.

Rather than pay equality as we imagine it now, where only men and women with the same job titles should be paid the same, such an approach, often called comparable worth or pay equity, would seek to equalize pay for people doing different but similar work. This focus addresses the part of the gender wage gap caused by the fact that women choose or are limited to lower-paid work. Low-skilled fields that are 25 percent or less female pay nearly $150 more a week than those dominated by women. At the higher end of the skillset, male-dominated jobs pay nearly $500 more a week than those crowded with women.

Such an approach used to be widespread: As of 1989, 20 states had made comparable worth adjustments within their own workforces, spending more than $527 million between 1983 and 1992 to adjust 335,000 lower-paid women’s pay. This eliminated 20 percent of the gender wage gap, and in five states — Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, and Connecticut — it was reduced by 25 to 33 percent. And a research paper found that the reductions in the wage gap were due to the programs, not other factors.

 

But they have since mostly faded away. One state, Minnesota, still has a robust program that requires all cities, counties, school districts, and other government entities to assess and adjust the pay scales between men and women every three years. Gaps crop up in the intervening time — last year, just 64 percent of the entities had equitable pay when the compliance process began — but they get addressed in the end. Yet it still focuses on the public sector; a push to move it into the state’s private sector by requiring companies that contract with it to analyze pay equity didn’t get approval last year.

Oregon’s second bill, HB2007, could also have a big impact on the state’s gender wage gap. Currently, about half of all workers across the country say that they are prohibited or discouraged from discussing their salaries. That makes it hard for anyone experiencing wage discrimination to find out what’s going on and correct it; Lilly Ledbetter, for whom the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was named, didn’t find out she was being unfairly paid less than her male coworkers for 19 years.

On the other hand, wherever there’s salary transparency there’s a smaller wage gap. It’s much smaller for the federal workforce, where few workers are prohibited from talking about pay and wage scales are usually public, and has shrunk significantly over the last decade. It’s also 40 percent smaller for unionized workers than for non-union ones and has been falling, and union representation often helps make wage scales transparent.

Little improvement on the gender wage gap has been made nationally. It steadily shrank between the 1960s and 1900s but progress has since slowed to a crawl, with basically none made over the last decade. A federal bill would similarly ban salary secrecy but has been repeatedly blocked by Republicans, while the pay equity, which is part of the Fair Pay Act, hasn’t been on the agenda in many years.

This article originally appeared in thinkprogress.org on February 10, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media

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