THE BUZZ: Unequal Grounds

By on May 24, 2017

For working women, Wyoming’s wage gap has deepened their struggles to survive.

This graphic displays the current poverty rate by state and the estimated rate if all working women earned the same as men. (Women’s Policy Research)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In the most economically disparate place in the country, many Teton County residents work multiple jobs to afford increasingly high rents. And in the state with the largest gender pay gap in the country, women are often hit the hardest.

Cecily Martinez is among the local women who struggles to make ends meet. She works in the customer service department of the Jackson Wells Fargo, but can’t afford to live in town.

So, five days a week, she leaves her Star Valley home at the same time her 12- and 14-year-old wake up, returning home an hour before they go to bed. On the weekends, she often cleans homes in Star Valley. Her third job, she says, is cleaning her own house—washing dishes, doing laundry. She is a single mother, and has been the sole provider for her two children for the last five years.

Her long hours can be grueling, and they impact the whole family. Her kids can’t participate the same ways their peers do. “They can’t be in extracurricular [activities] because I can’t be there to take them,” she said. And for Martinez, the stress of being away from them is overwhelming. “I worry all the time. I worry about something happening to them,” she said. “I worry about what they’re doing. I worry about them getting their homework done.”

But despite working nearly nonstop, Martinez said she “still doesn’t make enough money. We still live paycheck to paycheck.” When virtually every hour is filled and there is still not enough money coming in, the unexpected can be ruinous. “You can’t afford to have anything go wrong,” she said. “Just recently, I scrimped and saved to have $800, and then I had to go to Idaho Falls to get my tires changed. Now I have $5.” When people ask her what she does for fun, she laughs: “I work at my job, spend time with my kids, clean the house, I don’t have time for anything else.”

Being a working single mother can be a challenge in a culture built on the idea that the answer to tough times is working harder: “People just say work hard and you’ll be fine, you’ll be wealthy. Not really. You work hard and all you can do is pay the bills and take care of family.”

Sometimes, Martinez feels like she’s going to have a nervous breakdown. “But I don’t have time,” she said.

The (un)Equality State

Martinez is not alone. Many women struggle to make ends meet in Wyoming.

According to a report by the Wyoming Women’s Foundation, in 2014, men working full-time year-round in Wyoming made an average yearly income of $51,926. In contrast, white women working the same amount made $35,652. Black women brought home $35,500; Native American women made $29,982. And Latina women on average reported a $28,623 yearly income. This represents an annual shortfall of $2 million dollars.

In 2014, nearly 20,000 households were headed by single women, and 31 percent of those families lived below the poverty line.

Having a higher level of education did not mean women had a higher income. In fact, a man with a high school degree made, on average, more than double what a woman with a bachelor’s degree made. For women, it’s simply not true that working hard will ensure greater success.

As reported by Wyoming Public Media, Wyoming is expected to be the last state in the country to achieve wage parity—at this rate, not until the year 2159. But closing the gap is crucial to alleviating poverty. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the poverty rate for working women would more than halve if the gap were to close.

The wage gap in Wyoming can be partially attributed to occupational segregation. For example, the most common full-time, year-round job for men is electrician work. They make, on average, $25 an hour. Carpenters, the next most common, make $18, and the third most common, truck drivers, make $17 an hour on average.

In contrast, the three most common occupations for women in the state are substitute teachers, secretaries, and receptionists. Their average state hourly salaries are $11.88, $11, and $10.70 respectively. Occupational segregation is common across the country, and “men’s work” always pays more. However, in Wyoming, the occupations that primarily employ women pay below the national average.

Dissecting Wyoming’s wage gap

As Sarah Chapman, executive director of the Wyoming Women’s Foundation, noted, “The wage gap is not the result of one individual factor.”

Women face barriers before entering the workforce, and then once they’re in it. The wage gap, or whether it even exists, has been the subject of countless think-pieces—is it because women don’t negotiate pay raises? Because they’re averse to more dangerous professions? Because they struggle to re-enter the workforce after having children? Because they are not recruited for jobs traditionally held by men?

Regardless of the reason, women often feel the impact of their gender at work. As Evelyn Murphy writes in Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men and What to Do About it:

“There’s plain old discrimination, which openly bans women from hiring and advancement. There’s discrimination by sexual harassment, which humiliates women and drives them out of jobs. There’s discrimination by job segregation or by slotting women into job categories that are consistently underpaid. There’s working while female, that everyday discrimination by which women are dismissed and paid less than their male peers. There’s discrimination against mothers, which forces women (and not men) to pay for parenting. All this scrapes away at women’s earnings, day by day, year after year.”

Martinez has felt marginalized for being a single mother in her own career: “People don’t understand. They say, ‘Oh your kid is sick, but we don’t have anyone to cover, you have to be here.’ People don’t want to promote you. They think, ‘She’s not really capable because she’s more concerned about her kids than her job.’”

She recently interviewed for a job that she didn’t get. She got the feeling that the employers were concerned about her being a single mom.

To eliminate some of the more ineffable reasons, the Wyoming Women’s Foundation wants to study if there is a gap between what women and men make when they have the same occupation and are at the same level at work. That study is forthcoming, but for now, Chapman said, “anecdotally, we know from hearing from women that they didn’t realize they were making less until they saw somebody else’s pay stubs.”

Chapman says what they know is that “women’s work is devalued nationwide. Women are helping make Wyoming what it is, but they’re not being paid.”

But closing the gender wage gap doesn’t just help women and their families. “Everybody is impacted,” she said.

On an individual level, someone experiencing unequal pay has “lost a percent of their income going toward retirement or social security … families may not be able to make ends meet. They may rely heavily on social support programs.” If they were paid equally, they could move towards self-sufficiency.

The impact is broader, too. “As an employer when you have valuable employees and pay them equally, you’ll have lower turnover and higher satisfaction,” Chapman explained.

The wage gap, then, isn’t just a women’s issue, or an individual’s problem. It is a Wyoming problem.

Just keep going

For now, women in the state keep working, usually not knowing if they are being paid equally to their peers, or if their gender is impacting their chances at a promotion or being hired.

All Martinez knows is that she works a lot. She knows that the amount she works negatively impacts her ability to be a part of the community: “I love Jackson. I would love to live closer. I would love to be more involved with the community. I would love to do that with the kids.”

She says she wishes she could volunteer, and could contribute more of her time, energy, and talent to those around her. But she simply doesn’t have the time.

“I just work. Life just goes forward. What’s your other choice? There is none.” PJH

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