President Obama signed executive orders on Tuesday that aim to tighten the pay gap between men and women.
The president’s actions took place on National Equal Pay Day, a day symbolizing how long women have to work into 2014 to catch up with what men earned in 2013. The day originated in 1996 to raise public awareness of the wage gap.
In Alaska, a statute prohibits employers from paying females less than males for the same work. But there’s still a pay gap – for every dollar a man in Alaska earns, a woman earns roughly 67 cents.
State Labor Economist Caroline Schultz says occupation and industry selection is the main reason behind the pay gap.
“Women are never going to earn as much as men if women don’t choose to pursue high paying occupations,” Schultz says.
Engineers make some of the highest salaries in Alaska, but only 18 percent of them are women. They’re making on average $72,000 a year while their male counterparts make close to $96,000.
Supervisors in oil, mining and construction industries also make high salaries. Only 5 percent of them are women, and on average they earn less than half what men make in the same position. These 2012 figures from the Department of Labor represent total annual earnings and don’t distinguish between full- and part-time work.
Schultz says work flexibility is another factor in the gender pay gap. Alaska has a predominance of jobs in natural resources, often in remote work sites.
“That can sometimes be more of a challenge to women, because women traditionally take on a larger burden when it comes to family care. So, you know, if they need to leave early to pick up the kid from school, a woman is more likely to take a flexible job, maybe that pays a little bit less, than a man is,” Schultz says.
What women can do about it
Tamiah Liebersbach is the Women’s Economic Empowerment Center coordinator for YWCA Alaska. She says discrimination is a contributing factor to the pay gap, even if it’s not done on purpose.
“Some sort of idea that maybe a woman isn’t as committed to her career, if she has a family – those kinds of stereotypes do play a role, I think, in not just the wage that a woman gets, but the opportunities that she’s given to build her career,” Liebersbach says.
YWCA Alaska will host a Women’s Economic Empowerment Summit for the first time on May 5, Alaska’s Equal Pay Day. The summit includes a session on the art of negotiation. Wage disparity is also a focus of the Alaska Women’s Summit, established last year after state Sen. Lesil McGuire commissioned a report on the status of women in Alaska.
Belknap says negotiating salary is one way for women to take the matter of pay disparity into their own hands.
“Before you go into the interview, understand what the pay scale is for what you’re applying for, know what the going rate is, do some research,” Belknap says.
A couple of years ago, Belknap made a YouTube video demonstrating how to successfully negotiate pay.
Through the video, Belknap is spreading a message she never got. She says it never occurred to her to negotiate salary when she was appointed executive director of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in 1997.
“They said, ‘Well, we were paying your predecessor too much money, so your salary is going to be this much money.’ And I remember the little thought bubble in my head going, ‘Oh really, really?’ But I didn’t say anything,” Belknap says.
Belknap received pay increases over time, but says her starting salary was $8,000 less than the starting salary of her male predecessor.
State economist Schultz says whatever the reasons may be for the pay gap, the result is the same – women have less money:
“At the end of the year, at the end of a lifespan, at the end of a career, women have earned less money consistently through 25, 30, 35 years of working. And that really adds up.”
And this fact, Schultz says, leads to other questions.
“What does it mean for Alaska’s economy and what does it mean for women in Alaska, that in general, they have less money than men do? How does it affect their spending? How does it affect child care? How does it affect children?”
Schultz doesn’t know the answers. She also doesn’t know what happens in corporate offices during salary talks, but as an economist, she’ll continue to collect and present the data that could lead to decreasing Alaska’s pay gap.