The South still lags U.S. on paying women fairly

Alabama still has one of the widest gender wage gaps in the nation, and most of the South follows suit, a Reckon analysis shows.

Nationally, women make 82 cents for every dollar paid to men, with an annual gap of $9,774. Southern women earn less, around 78 cents on average. 

Women in Alabama earn about 7cents for every dollar paid to men for full-time, year-round workaccording to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That’s an average income of $37,161 for Alabama women compared with $50,018 for men, a difference of $12,857.  

In Alabama alone, the income differential between men and women is roughly equivalent to the cost of putting two children in daycare for a year or one full academic year’s worth of tuition and books at a state university.

“It’s not just as simple as looking at the exact same jobs and ensuring men and women are paid equally,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president of A Better Balance, a family and workplace legal service with a Southern office based in Nashville, Tenn.  

“We need policies that recognize the 2020 workforce, not the 1950 workforce.” 

Pay equity issues around the country came under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for whom gender equality was a career hallmark. She was involved with more than one landmark case that began in the South, including the Lily Ledbetter case, which eventually led to federal equal pay legislation. She was also one of the attorneys in a landmark case originating in Alabama, which became the first successful sex discrimination suit against the federal government. 

Across the South, the gender wage gap varies. Louisiana joins Alabama in the bottom five states with the widest gaps, with Mississippi and South Carolina not far behind. Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia rank somewhere in the middle. Florida is the only Southern state that beats the national average, with a 17-cent difference between men and women’s wages, and an annual gap of $7,678. 

In every state in the nation, women on average make less than men for full-time year-round work. Vermont is has the smallest gap, where women make 91 cents for every dollar paid to men. 

But when it comes to women of color, the wage gap stretches into a canyon. 

“We can’t talk about the gender pay gap without also talking about the race gap,” said Gedmark. 

 Black women are paid 62 cents on average, Native American women 57 cents, and Latinas 54 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. 

“In our region,” said Gedmark, we have to reckon with a history of slavery and with institutional racism that persists to this day. 

A wage gap of several thousand dollars a year adds up to big losses over time. Studies have found that wage gap persists throughout a woman’s career, according to a 2019 report from Congress. 

That means a woman earning $10,000 a year less than her male counterpart throughout her 40-year career faces a loss of $400,000 

It’s a disparity that can harm not just women, but entire families. In most states, including nearly every Southern state, more than half of all households with children under 18 have mothers who are breadwinners.  

Why is there a wage gap between women and men? 

We know some of the reasons why the gender wage gap is still an issue in 2020. A few of them are simple: Women tend to be underrepresented in fields with some of the highest-paying jobs, such as science, engineering and technology. 

Child care – or a lack of it – plays a big role. Women may choose jobs that have more flexibility and pay less, in order to care for children. About 40% of mothers said they reduced their work hours or took a significant amount of time off to care for a child or family memberaccording to a 2019 Pew Research Center Survey. 

More than a quarter of mothers said they quit their job to care for children, compared to just 10% of men. 

“If the burden of childcare were divided more equally between partners and more and more affordable childcare options were available,” said Dr. Amanda Phalin, a lecturer at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business, “women would be better situated to work in a wider range of occupations.” 

Having children can cause significant disruption to a woman’s career, harming her earning potential. The wage penalty for motherhood can be 10% or more of her earnings per child, according to one study. 

“Women will often take time off, sometimes years, to raise children, setting back their experience relative to male colleagues,” said Phalin.  

The consequences ripple out from there, including not only lost wages, but also lost benefits like health insurance.  

“When a woman is detached from the workforce, even if she’s utilizing safety nets, her lifetime earnings and the family’s overall economic security are still drastically affected,” said Gedmark. “It really does drag down the whole family.” 

The coronavirus epidemic has only made things worse, threatening to wipe out workplace gains made by women over the past several decades. In May, women accounted for 55% of COVID-era job losses. Gedmark said she’s seeing the impact especially among low-wage workers, who often don’t have the option to telework. The epidemic hit the service sector particularly hard, where women are overrepresented. 

“I expect COVID to set women back years,” said Phalin. “We are already seeing this happen as women are taking on the large majority of work caring for supervising and teaching their children in online environments.” 

Workplace discrimination also plays a role but can be harder to quantify. A Pew Research survey last year found four out of 10 women said they’d experienced gender discrimination at work, compared with two in 10 men. 

Phalin said studies show women consistently undervalue their work compared with men, and are less likely to ask for or negotiate a higher salary. But when they do, they can be penalized and viewed as too aggressive or arrogant, she said.  

“Data show that behavior viewed as positive in men – assertiveness, decisiveness – is viewed negatively for women, (as) aggressive, bossy,” she said. “This affects performance reviews, hiring decisions and salary and wage decisions.” 

How to close the wage gap for good? 

States have made progress in workplace protections in the past few years.  

Last year, Alabama became the second-to-last state to pass an equal pay law, which prevents employers from paying employees differently for the same job based on sex or race. Mississippi is the only state in the nation without an equal pay law on the books. 

But the South still has some of the least protective laws when it comes to gender and racial wage equity, said Gedmark. The American Association of University Women classifies no Southern state as having strong or moderate equal pay protections. 

Mandated paid parental leave and better access to quality, affordable child care could make a difference for working women, said Phalin. 

The U.S. is still the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee paid leave for all new parents.  

A 2019 economic report from Congress came out in favor of paid parental leave: “Research shows that paid leave policies increase employment among mothers, as those with access to eave are almost 70 percent more likely to return to work in the long run than those without access.” 

Phalin said another way to close the wage gap would be for companies to be transparent about wages and salaries.  

“In many cases, women don’t even have the right to know if they are receiving lower salaries than men in the same job,” she said. “A lot of companies are allowed to prohibit employees from talking about how much they earn.  

“We can’t work to change what we don’t know is happening.” 

The Reckon Report.
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