Gazette opinion: Girls can grow up to be plumbers

2014-08-08T00:00:00Z 2014-08-08T06:19:03Z Gazette opinion: Girls can grow up to be plumbers The Billings Gazette
August 08, 2014 12:00 am

Why do Montana women earn only 67 percent of what men earn?

Gov. Steve Bullock's Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force set out to find answers and recently provided valuable insight through an audit of Montana state government pay. Most importantly, the state human resources division has made recommendations on how this state can help women increase their earned income.

"It's important that we lead by example and ensure that we're working to address the pay gap in state government," Bullock said upon releasing the audit, which showed that among state workers, the pay difference isn't as wide as in the general workforce.

Women in state jobs earn, on average, 86.9 percent of what men do.

However, when women and men are doing similar state work, women earn 98.68 percent of what men earn. In management an supervising positions, women earn 99.45 percent of what men earn.

But there are fewer women in top management positions.

Moreover, women who work for the state, tend to be in lower paying clerical and client care jobs. Men are more likely to work in blue collar jobs that have better wages.

The audit also showed that women are more likely to be underemployed for their educational level -- holding master's degrees but working in jobs that don't require that high level of education.

"One of the key ways to close the pay gap is by addressing the issue of women being underemployed in state government," said Pam Bucy, Montana commissioner of labor. Bucy and Sheila Hogan, director of the state Department of Administration, co-chair the task force.

The audit also examined how the pay gap changes over workers' careers. The data shows that the longer women have worked in state government, the further they fall behind male workers with the same years of work experience.

Among state employees age 18-30, women earned 92.41 percent of what men earned. But among those age 31-47, women earned only 87.6 percent of what men did. And among Baby Boomers, ages 48-66, women earned 84 percent of men's earnings.

Most of the jobs categories with no women workers are skilled trade positions or public safety jobs, according to the audit. That includes carpenters, mechanics, electricians, maintenance workers, drivers, painters, plumbers, game warden captains, firefighters, Highway Patrol sergeants and lieutenants, The state employs no female surveyors, drafters or mediators.

Conversely, there are no men in some state job codes for customer service, office support, various medical assistants, education or librarian.

The audit recommended:

- Encouraging career choices for women to choose job categories with no current female representation.

- Educational opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineer and math) fields.

- Outreach and communication about career opportunities.

Of course, both men and women should be encouraged to work in careers that will provide good wages to support themselves and their families. But women tend to select lower-pay options.

That is a serious concern for our entire state because many women are heads of households, many are raising children on very low income. The face of poverty tends to be female, and women with young children are at highest risk for poverty.

The equal pay project will continue with the state examining promotion criteria to make sure women are receiving the same opportunities as men. The Department of Administration will interview state workers who are underemployed to find out why they are in jobs for which they are overqualified.

Montana recently won a $5 million federal grant to market apprenticeships and expand training in skilled crafts. That grant could help women get into higher paying careers, said Annie Glover, labor department spokeswoman.

"Yes, women can be heavy equipment operators. Yes, women can be plumbers," Glover said. "We're facing a shortage of welders. Women can be welders."

Montana's two-year colleges have big roles to play to train Montana's future workforce. That workforce needs women as much as men. Our aging demographics portend labor shortages.

Building that workforce starts in elementary and middle school where both boys and girls must be educated in STEM. Montana cannot meet future demands if half of its population doesn't see themselves succeeding in jobs that pay well.

We commend Bullock and the members of the Equal Pay Task Force for drilling down into data to figure out how women can attain workforce equality. Let’s keep working on it.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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