On June 19, 1944, a visionary woman from Buffalo, New York, introduced a bill in Congress that prohibited paying employees differently based on gender.
The bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Winifred Stanley, died in committee; and the idea of paying all people equally languished in Congress for another 19 years. President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law June 10, 1963, with the intent of ensuring that from then on, men and women would be paid equally when performing jobs in the same field.
Fifty-five years later, a wage gap persists.
Women's groups said the act hastened progress but that the gap lingers because of cultural reasons. Still, businesses, a women's group and local residents said Mid-Missouri counties strive to treat women equally in the workforce.
Nationwide, women earn 81.9 percent of what men make, according to the Women's Foundation, a Kansas City-based nonprofit organization. In eight Mid-Missouri counties, pay differences between men and women rank among the smallest in the state.
The motherhood penalty
To an extent, the Equal Pay Act had its desired effect. For about two decades, studies have shown women earn as much as or more than men in their 20s in big cities like Los Angeles, Dallas and New York. Over at least the past decade, that trend grew out of large urban enclaves and moved into smaller cities across the country.
"When women start out in their careers, they're actually on pretty equal footing," said Wendy Doyle, Women's Foundation president and chief executive officer. "Then when they take a break to start a family in their 30s and 40s, that's where you typically see that gap open up."
Women also outnumber men in college and graduate schools, which some studies attribute this phenomenon to. Often, women in their 20s make more than men in professions like medicine, architecture, economics, reporting, editing and customer service representative positions.
Though career-minded women now often put off becoming parents until their 30s and 40s, once they do decide to have children appears to be when the gap opens up because of the time needed away from work.
Doyle said this also leads to a wealth gap between men and women. Because women more often take time off work to have children and earn less money, they also cannot save as much as men for retirement.
"Some employers, it's challenging if you want to re-enter the work market," Doyle said. "We're finding that the big penalty really puts women at a disadvantage later in life."
Statewide, Missouri women earned a median 77 percent of what men make, according to a 2017 study by the Women's Foundation.
Nationwide, median weekly earnings in the top 20 professions for women peak at $1,188 per week for managerial jobs, according to a study by the Washington-based nonprofit Institute for Women's Policy Research. By contrast, median wages at the top of male-dominated industries peak about $1,300 higher at $2,419 for chief executive positions.
Men also make about $216 per week more than women in low-wage jobs like cashier and janitorial positions, according to the institute.
The U.S. Department of Labor found in 2015 that women employed full time in 2015 made an average of $40,742, compared to $51,212 for men. Hispanic women earned just 56.3 percent of the median weekly earnings of white men in 2015. Black women earned 61.2 percent, and Asian women earned 87.3 percent.
Locally, eight Mid-Missouri counties paid women at the state's median rate of 77 percent or better.
Coastal areas like New York, California, Florida and the District of Columbia had the smallest disparities in pay between genders, according to a 2018 study by American Association of University Women. Missouri ranked No. 30 on the list.
Urban areas of Missouri like St. Louis City, Jackson County and Greene County came in ranked at Nos. 20, 31 and 42 of the 114 counties plus St. Louis City the study covered. Small communities with large employers often see smaller pay gaps than rural areas with fewer business and industry opportunities, like those in Missouri's Bootheel.
"Typically in those communities, there will be a real industry where there is an anchor," Doyle said.
Ending occupational segregation
Even though Mid-Missouri counties have large employers with relatively low wage gaps compared to the rest of the state, Doyle said companies in all fields should strive to end occupational segregation and close the wage gap further. To do this, Doyle suggested companies hire women in fields traditionally dominated by men and by hiring men in fields traditionally dominated by women.
Nationwide, secretarial jobs rank as the field with the highest percentage of female workers, with women comprising 94 percent of secretaries and administrative assistants statewide, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Receptionist and clerical positions followed, with women comprising 89 percent of employees in those fields.
The study also noted women comprised 88.6 percent of registered nurses and 86 percent of nursing and home health aides.
Local business representatives said they don't notice gender biases when hiring candidates.
Dawn Sweazea, talent acquisition leader for SSM Health's Mid-Missouri Region, said in a statement that St. Mary's Hospital simply tries to find the best candidates available, regardless of gender.
"While we understand there are gender disparities in some fields, we recruit the same, with the same goal in mind," Sweazea said. "The labor market is very tight right now, and professionals have many options."
C&S Business Services provides clerical labor and information technology services for companies around the area and also places temporary, temp-to-hire and direct-hire employees with businesses around Mid-Missouri. Owner Paula Benne said she hires many men for clerical and bookkeeping jobs.
"It's predominantly women, but I do have (men)," she said.
The Institute for Women's Policy Research found men make more money than women even in female-dominated industries. The institute found women in secretarial and administrative assistant jobs had median wages of $708 per week, compared to $831 per week for men.
Benne also said there is no pay differential locally between what women and men make in those fields.
"The clients call for job title and pay," Benne said. "That is not even discussed."
Trades like carpentry, electricians, auto mechanics and grounds maintenance workers have the highest percentage of male workers, according to the institute. Women make up just 3 percent of construction workers, according to the institute, but local unions are finding female workers.
Jamie McKinney, a sheet metal worker at Hulett Heating and Air Conditioning in Columbia, said it can be challenging to work in a male-dominated field. Her union, Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 in Fulton, welcomed her quickly as she took on its five-year apprenticeship program.
"You just really have to prove that you deserve to be there," McKinney said. "You have to prove that you can do the work (men) can because everyone is treated the same."
Doug Piant, Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 business representative, interviewed McKinney for the union's apprenticeship program. Piant said the union currently has three female members and Local 36 tries to recruit members from high schools and trade schools around the area.
Piant said the key to recruiting more women is to change the stereotype that construction is a man's industry.
"Everybody thinks construction is a man's world, but it's not," he said. "It is a physical job, and they understand what they're getting into. There's women that can out-work men."
The Institute for Women's Policy Research said women make up only 15.6 percent of employees in laborer jobs and 26.9 percent of employees in manufacturing jobs. Scholastic employs 1,500 employees in its Jefferson City distribution center at 6325 Stertzer Road.
Tammy Chute, vice president of human resources at Scholastic's Jefferson City Distribution Center, said women make up 56 percent of the company's Jefferson City staff. Chute said managerial positions in Jefferson City are evenly split between men and women. Like other companies reached by the News Tribune, Scholastic said it does not determine wages based on gender.
"Female employees are forklift operators, engineers, packing specialists, financial analysts, day and night shift managers, office personnel, and more," Chute said. "Since our workforce is so evenly split among men and women, you will find all genders in nearly every role."
Chute said the company recruits female employees by working with the Society of Women Engineers at the University of Missouri, connecting with women on historically black college job board hbcuconnect and finding other ways to connect with job candidates.
"We don't find it more or less challenging to find women to fill our open positions," she said.
Women across the country rallied April 10 to push for legislation that could even out the differences in pay between men and women. About 50 women gathered to push Missouri lawmakers to enact legislation at the Missouri State Capitol that could help close the gap.
A 2015 University of Missouri study conducted for the Women's Foundation said the Equal Pay Act had a noble intent but did not address the systemic reasons for why the wage gap lingers. The Equal Pay Act made it illegal for employers to pay men and women in the same field at different rates.
State Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, introduced a bill at the state level this year which would prohibit employers from paying men and women at different rates for similar work. The Paycheck Fairness Act, a similar federal bill, is stalled in Congress.
The wage gap tends to open during periods when women have children and leads to lower-paying positions later in their careers, Doyle said. Enacting laws that mandate more paid maternity and paternity leave time could ease burdens on families and make it easier for new parents to re-enter the workforce.
Gov. Eric Greitens took a small step toward that goal last year when he signed an executive order that granted executive branch employees six weeks of paid parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child.
Doyle said careers in science, technology, engineering and math are starting to recruit more women, but their advancement is often stunted because of time off, creating a "motherhood penalty."
Workplace cultures that foster hostile work environments may also play a role. Women who experience sexual harassment at work are 6.5 times more likely to leave their jobs than women who don't, according to Bloomberg. After being sexually harassed, women are more likely to leave for jobs that pay less or the same as their existing job.
A 2017 study from nonprofit think-tank The Center for American Progress found women make up 44 percent of the workforce and 36 percent of managers at companies on the Standard & Poor's 500 Index. Despite this, women hold only 25 percent of executive positions and 20 percent of seats on boards of directors and comprise only 6 percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies.
When considering employees for promotions, the report recommends employers conduct "joint evaluations," which compare the work and achievements of all employees in a given job title.
"In this case, transparency does not mean that individual performance evaluations are made public," the report noted. "Rather that evaluation and promotion processes are clearly defined by management and communicated to employees."
Fatima Gross, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center, said on a conference call with media members April 9 that requiring companies to collect and report pay data would ensure employees are paid at the same rates.
"Pay discrimination is among the most difficult to detect and to address," Gross said. "When employees are paid less because of their sex or their race, or ethnicity, they have no idea they are being discriminated against. "
The 2015 Women's Foundation study also suggested companies use self-audits to assess differences in pay between male and female workers. State tools are not currently designed to analyze gender pay data, though.
To do this, companies can analyze whether pay disparities exist by job titles. The study acknowledged differing tenures for employees can have significant impact on pay, but said the process can find differences in pay between employees of differing genders. Positions with similar skill levels but not the same titles also can be grouped into categories to help employers find pay discrepancies, the report said.
"Transparency provides women and men the information they need to negotiate an appropriate salary," the report noted. "Consequently, pay transparency significantly reduces the likelihood of discriminatory pay practices within an organization."