Researchers mull reasons behind Indiana’s gender wage gap

Keywords Employment / Wages

For every dollar a white man makes in Indiana, his female counterpart pulls in 74 cents.

If she happens to be black, that drops to 62 cents.

Latina? A mere 54 cents.

That startling wage gap, which has remained stagnant for several years, puts the state in the unenviable position of ranking fifth worst in the nation when it comes to equity in women's pay, according to a national report released this month.

"It really is astounding," said Sarah Crawford, director of workplace fairness at the National Partnership for Women & Families, a not-for-profit advocacy group that released the report. "But it's not just Indiana. I can tell you on a national scale, unfortunately, we haven't made much progress."

The national wage gap comes in at 77 cents. A breakdown of the 50 states shows Vermont and California tying for the lowest gap (84 cents) and Wyoming coming in with the greatest (64 cents).

Why Indiana managed to fall so far down on the list is a complicated—and controversial—question that could encompass as many as a dozen factors, from the types of jobs women hold to the job mix in the state to whether women are staying in the workforce or taking breaks to have children.

But at least one Indiana economist believes the ranking has everything to do with the state's demographics.

"Do we have more women with families? Do we have more single women? Do we have women who left to have children? Or do we have women who stayed in the workforce constantly," said Matt Will, a finance professor at the University of Indianapolis. "What is our divorce rate, our education level? This is completely demographically based."

Why it's happening here and nationwide, however, has been one of the biggest debates in the workplace. Some have called it a myth.

"A myth? I doubt that very much," said Jerry Conover, director of Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University.

While not having seen the data, Conover had his own thoughts on why Indiana ranked poorly.

"My hunch would be that's, in part, because we reflect a different occupational mix within our economy than the national average," he said. "We have more production occupations, a larger percentage of the workforce employed in manufacturing."

A state with a heavy mix of traditionally men's jobs might skew the outcome on the wage gap a bit, Conover said.

The national wage gap has improved slowly in the past four decades. In 1970, for example, women made 58.7 cents for every dollar. By 2000, it had risen to 72.2 cents.

One thing that seems steady is that the wage gap exists among almost all industries: financial, manufacturing, education, health services and government.

There are a few industries, however, that fare better when it comes to pay parity. Leisure and hospitality (84 cents) and agriculture-related industries (85 cents). Performing the best? The construction industry, where women earn 92 cents to every man's dollar, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Indianapolis construction company Shiel Sexton is adamant about bringing more females into the workplace and paying them fairly.

"We want and need women," Vice President Kevin Potter said. "Women typically believe that this is an industry for men only. Women truly have equal opportunity in the construction industry."

Crawford, with the National Partnership, says it's great that the construction industry is leading the way in equal pay. But in the whole scheme of things, it's a drop in the bucket "because so few women are employed in construction," she said.

Crawford said her organization is looking to not just talk about the wage gap but make changes. Its report comes as it fights for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.

That legislation, in part, would put gender-based discrimination on equal footing with other forms of wage discrimination and allow women to take legal action for damages.

It also would recognize employers for excellence in their pay practices and prohibit them from retaliating against workers who discuss salaries with colleagues.

"For employers, we hope this is an opportunity to step back and look at the pay system," Crawford said. "Make sure they are not paying women less than men for some non-legitimate reasons."

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