BY APRIL STREETER
The data-crunching company PayScale predicts that the gender pay gap between men and women will continue to close as millennials comprise more of the active workforce. Millennials, as numerous sources have documented, are all about equality, and by 2015 will be 36% of the working pool, according to U.S. Census data.
Yet the forces that keep the pay difference between the sexes in place are subtle and pervasive — and sometimes surprising. Currently, Oregon’s gap is just a touch smaller than the national gap, with Oregon employers paying women approximately $.79 for every dollar men make. In a few spots, such as Nevada and Vermont, women earn around $.85 for every dollar males earn. In the nation’s capital, that figure rises to $.90 cents to women for each dollar men pull in.
The gender pay gap is figured using Census data, and the national median figure for the gap has women making 77% of what men do. The national gap has closed slowly — just 2.3% in the past five years.
Perhaps the influx of millennials, in addition to more men getting out of the workforce and more and better-educated women getting in, will hasten the close. Yet when drilling down into pay-gap stats, there’s a significant number of cities in the United States where the gap is actually increasing, and Oregon’s capital city of Salem is one of them. In its list of the top 25 cities where the gender pay gap is widening, financial site NerdWallet reports Salem was number 23. Salem’s gap increased 12% in the years between 2007 and 2012.
“I’m flummoxed,” says Marcia Kelley, director of the Salem branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). AAUW has kept track of the pay gap since 1913. “Salem is conservative in a lot of ways, so I might guess it is the nature of businesspeople in this town, combined with the economic doldrums.”
Other factors increasing the gap in a region can be rapid growth of a sector that hires more males, such as engineering jobs in high tech. But when all factors are smoothed out, about 25% to 40% of the gap is estimated to be gender bias.
The gender pay gap is also industry dependent. With unionized jobs, according to Mary Ann Naylor of the nonprofit organization Oregon Tradeswomen, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 has helped close the gap. In other fields, especially law and finance, the gap stubbornly persists.
Attorney Brenna K. Legaard says she has felt that gap in her own career; so have her female colleagues. “In my experience, the pay gaps weren’t a direct result of explicit bias,” Legaard says, “but rather the result of the stew of cultural issues that can make law particularly challenging for women.”
Legaard recently joined Portland-based firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, and she says the decision was partly driven by a quest for better compensation. “I’m no wallflower, but it was very difficult for me to speak up and tell my management that I was underpaid,” she says.
She eventually did, and upon realizing that there were larger issues that would not be resolved, she started looking. Legaard worked with a recruiter who advised her not to participate directly in salary negotiations for her new position.
That advice flies directly in the face of AAUW’s recommendations, which is that women learn how to become skilled at salary negotiation. In addition, legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act, although blocked by Senate Republicans in April, can help to push more companies to do salary audits and foster equal pay.
Cultural factors are even more difficult to change. After her recruiter’s advice, Legaard is a little rueful. “[It] goes to show you that even if women feel comfortable asking for more money, asking will still cost them an interpersonal penalty, and as most of us are not fools, on some level we know that … so my recruiter’s job is safe.”