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Women's Work 

Utah's gender-based pay gap

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The joke is on Utah girls.

Fed a fairy tale about motherhood from the time we’re handed our first Baby Alives and Easy-Bake Ovens, we’re led to believe the men we raise and love and work for revere moms.

Until we get our paychecks. And then the truth—in hard numbers—comes into focus. All that talk about the toughest job in the world—worth more than $100,000 annually—is just that: talk.

Because Utah women make just 69 cents for every dollar paid to men.

The state has the dubious honor of placing 48th in the gender-pay-gap rankings nationally this year. We’re used to the race for the bottom—Utah has been content with edging out various southern states in per-pupil school funding for years. This time, the Beehive State lands just above Louisiana and Wyoming.

But it’s all relative. Even in No. 1 Vermont, women still make 84 cents to the dollar men earn, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Equal Pay Day 2012 coincided with the repackaged mommy war between Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen and would-be Republican first lady Ann Romney. While questioning a millionaire wife’s ability to understand the struggles of working mothers, Rosen forgot her second-wave feminism primer (it’s: Ann Romney “hasn’t worked a day outside the home in her life”). And Romney fired back on Twitter with a fit of manufactured mommy rage.

“My career choice was to be a mother,” she said. “We have to respect women and all those choices that they make.”

Even President Barack Obama, raised by a single mother, scurried to land on the right side of this post-feminist skirmish. He resorted to a condescending oldie but goodie: “There’s no tougher job than being a mom.”

All of it was chatter around the margins of a larger problem. Utah’s pay gap means women earn on average $14,000 less a year than men. And it’s worse for Utah’s minority mothers: Black women make $22,200 less than Utah men; Latinas earn $22,400 less. With almost 86,000 Utah households headed by single mothers—and nearly 1 in 3 of those, 28 percent, living in poverty—the gender pay gap means more Utah families struggle to pay their bills.

And despite Ann Romney’s venture- capitalism-funded “career choice,” the fact is: Utah women work outside the home. Whether it’s to pay for all those kids or to get away from all those kids, two-thirds of Utah mothers of young children work, and three-fourths of mothers of school-age kids have jobs outside the home.

With all that work, they’re still bringing home less bacon. There are tangible reasons for the gap, including a shameful education gap in this state. Today, 26 percent of the state’s female college students get bachelor’s degrees, compared to 32 percent of men, according to the Department of Workforce Services.

And once they’re working, Utah mothers are more likely to take maternity leave when they have a baby and settle into part-time work when they return.

But that can’t explain all of the gap. Even the Government Accountability Office is stumped. After studying the gender pay gap for years, federal number crunchers concluded only 80 percent of the pay gap could be blamed on women’s more frequent use of family leave and longer absences from the workforce while their children were young. The rest falls into the realm of the intangibles: discrimination and bias.

“There is evidence that in contexts where women’s roles are more traditional, there is slightly more discrimination,” says Claudia Geist, a University of Utah sociology professor. “Employers may also discriminate toward women (even subconsciously) because they don’t see them as the career person who will commit themselves to their jobs. “

And in a state like Utah, even women who do not focus on their family roles may be affected.”

The kick to the head in all of this is: Men with children actually earn more than men without children—about 2 percent more. So, employers apparently look at men with families and think: “stable.” They look at women with families and think: “sick days.”

The gender pay gap has been documented and picked apart for 30 years, with little change. Eliminating deep-seated biases will apparently take even more time.

Still, there are things mother-loving Utah leaders could do now to level the field.

In an effort to close the state’s education gap, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wants two-thirds of Utahns ages 20 to 64 to have a college degree or professional certification by 2020. If the governor achieves his goal, there will undoubtedly be some women in there.

At the same time, Susie Porter, director of the U’s gender-studies program, says legislators’ “anti-affirmative action” (really, anti-immigrant) inclinations threaten to make the gender gap worse. In 20 years, ethnic minorities will make up 45 percent of the state’s population, Porter says. In 30 years, Utah will be a so-called majority-minority state, like California.

Almost from the moment 10 years ago that kinder, gentler conservatives in the Utah Legislature approved an in-state tuition program for the children of undocumented workers, Capitol Hill’s purists have grumbled about getting rid of it. But Porter says that’s counterproductive. Some of the students affected would be women—Latina women, specifically. Future mothers.

“Continued and expanded state support will increase our scholastic ranking,” Porter says.

Maybe lawmakers could do it for their mothers. 

Rebecca Walsh is a longtime Utah reporter and columnist who currently works in Palm Springs, Calif.

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Rebecca Walsh

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