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Utah to host national conversation about tackling the gender pay gap

FILE - Nikki Hendriksen works in the pharmacy at Smith's Marketplace in West Jordan on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. This month, Employers Council Utah will meet with representatives from across the nation to discuss some of the factors that cause or contribut
FILE - Nikki Hendriksen works in the pharmacy at Smith's Marketplace in West Jordan on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. This month, Employers Council Utah will meet with representatives from across the nation to discuss some of the factors that cause or contribute to the gender pay gap and the impact existing employment laws are having on closing the divide.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — This month, Employers Council Utah will meet with representatives from across the nation to discuss some of the factors that cause or contribute to the gender pay gap and the impact existing employment laws are having on closing the divide.

From a historical perspective, women earned 63 percent of what men were making in 1979, according to Employers Council Utah attorney Katie Hudman. The gap narrowed to approximately 78 percent over the next decade, she said, but wages have stagnated near the 80 percent range since the mid-'90s.

"It's been hovering around that 80 percent for more than 20 years now," she said. "I don't know that there is one 'silver bullet' to move the needle. It's going to be a bunch of little steps that happen over a number of years that will be needed to address that."

In 2017 the Deseret News undertook an exploration of the gender wage gap. The reporting revealed that the gap is real, but there is more to the numbers than is often reported.

Data show that when profession and a host of other factors are taken into account, it explains much of the wage gap — but the gap doesn't disappear entirely.

A Glassdoor review of more than 505,000 salaries from full-time U.S. employees found that women earned about 76 cents on the dollar compared to men. Yet when Glassdoor compared workers of similar age, education and years of experience, the gap shrank to 19.2 percent, or 80.8 cents on the dollar. A further comparison of workers with the same job title, employer and location dropped the gender gap to 5.4 percent or 94.6 cents per dollar.

Hudman said employers should be more careful to pay women and men equally for the same work as required by law. "It does continue to be a nagging little part of the puzzle," she added.

Hudman said one of the ongoing concerns that perpetuate the issue of pay inequity is occupational segregation — where jobs are being divided by perceived gender roles rather than strictly on talent and ability.

"Those occupations tend to be lower paying for women and higher paying for men," she said. "Those are the jobs that I'm directed toward based upon my gender, like caregivers that tend to have lower paying salaries than construction workers, for example."

Hudman said one intriguing development that has occurred in recent years has been the increasing number of women college graduates, which would seem to address the educational component of the gender wage gap.

"It will be interesting to see as that trend goes out into the marketplace, if it has an impact on closing the gap with women having higher educational levels," she said. Affecting real, lasting change may require employers to rethink how they recruit new employees, how they design job duties to allow for flexible work schedules that can be more helpful to women who may be mothers, as well as other reasonable accommodations that can offer more opportunities for women to participate more fully in the workplace.

Also, re-evaluating performance standards to ensure equity in how different genders are judged to prevent unintentional biases, she added.

"Employers can dig deep into that whole process starting from job design all the way through to termination really looking at your practices and if they contain bias," Hudman said. "That's a long-term solution that we're going to bite off in small pieces (over time) and see how it affects the long-term results."

During the upcoming May 30 conference, Hudman will present recent legal developments related to equal pay and what steps business leaders can take to address the issue within their own organizations, she said.

Meanwhile, last year Utah ranked as the worst state in the nation for the gender wage gap regarding pay equality, according to the American Association of University Women. In response, the Salt Lake Chamber, in conjunction with the Women's Leadership Institute, issued the "Best Practices Guide for Closing the Gender Wage Gap."

This week, Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller acknowledged that unintentional bias likely plays a role in the persistence of the gender pay gap, but employers, as well as employees, must work diligently to mitigate the issue to the benefit all involved.

"(Employers) over time have to constantly review and evaluate the wages between men and women because they'll close the gap and then over time the gap creeps in again," he explained. "Then they have to close it again."

While unintentional biases in the hiring systems may cause the inequities to occur, employers also have to intentionally make the adjustments necessary to create pay equality within their individual workplaces, he said.

"We have to be ever vigilant in making sure that these unconscious workplace biases don't enter in," Miller said. Ironically, he added that 2018 saw nearly 40 percent increase in the number of female-owned local businesses, but the same gender pay gap was prevalent.

"Clearly, it is not intentional that these gaps exist," Miller said. "Even if it's unintentional, we can't ignore it. Because it's unintentional, we have to be more aware and exert more effort to get to the root of the problem."