Full-time working women in Missouri earned 78 percent of what their male counterparts did in 2019 — the lowest the state's ratio has been since 2015.
Missouri's women's-to-men's earnings ratio dropped 2.7 percentage points from 2018, and advocates worry the COVID-19 pandemic could further negatively affect women's compensation.
Missouri women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median usual weekly earnings of $786, compared to Missouri men's median usual weekly earnings of $1,008, according to information recently released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nationwide, women earned $821 per week — 81.5 percent of the $1,007 median for men.
Missouri's women's-to-men's earnings ratio has ranged from 73.5 percent in 2000 to 80.8 percent in 1998, according to the BLS.
Women accounted for 46.6 percent of Missouri's full-time and salaried workforce in 2019, while men made up 53.4 percent.
Some factors contributing to the disparities have been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.
"Too many women remain on the sidelines because they face unnecessary workforce development obstacles such as pay inequality, child care barriers, limited family leave, entrepreneurship restrictions, sexual harassment and inadequate public policies," said Wendy Doyle, president and chief executive officer of Kansas City-based United WE, formerly the Women's Foundation, which works to advance women's economic and civic leadership.
"These are solvable challenges, and it is critical that we unite to advance and support policies that strengthen Missouri women and families for the economic development of our state," Doyle said.
Such policies might include increased parental leave, more flexible child care options, and eliminating employers' ability to inquire about previous compensation levels, she said.
Senate Bill 416, proposed this year by state Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis County, would create the "Missouri Earned Family and Medical Leave Act," authorizing up to six weeks annually of wage replacement benefits for employees to bond with a minor child within the first year of birth or adoption/foster care placement, to care for the serious health condition of oneself or a family member, or to assume any familial responsibility because a spouse, child or parent has been called to active duty in the Armed Force.
The act would create the "Missouri Earned Family and Medical Leave Fund," requiring employees to contribute 0.25 percent of their average weekly pay to the fund.
The bill is not targeted specifically toward supporting women but is intended as a pro-family measure, Schupp said.
"Still, it seems that the women are the ones who, when the policies aren't good, take the responsibility for making sure their families are doing well," she said.
It's also intended as an economic development tool, as Schupp believes young people who might otherwise seek to advance careers outside of Missouri are looking for work-life balance.
"You don't want to have to choose between your job and doing the right thing for your family," she said.
If the bill passes and Missouri voters approve it by referendum in the 2022 general election, contributions to the fund could begin in January 2023, with employees to begin receiving benefits in January 2025.
Schupp has proposed similar measures in past years that didn't make it past the committee level to reach floor debate in the Senate.
She hopes new people in the Legislature this year could help turn the tide.
"In many ways it's a new world," she said. "I don't know if COVID and what people have gone through gives people a sense of what kinds of trauma can happen in somebody's life that somebody might need to help out."
SB 111, sponsored by state Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, would prohibit employers from asking about an applicant's salary history or screening applicants based on prior compensation. A similar measure proposed last year didn't make it out of committee.
House Bill 1113, sponsored by state Rep. Trish Gunby, D-Ballwin, would prohibit gender-based discrimination in providing compensation for the same work performed under similar conditions. Similar measures proposed in 2019 and 2020 didn't make it out of committee.
"Missouri has yet to fully ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and so the importance of this amendment is minimized and creates a culture that says women aren't equal," Gunby told the News Tribune in an email. "I think corporations and workers should be transparent about starting pay. There may be merit raises down the line and that can be kept private; however, we should be able to share basic pay/salary information. In addition, those in charge of hiring workers need to mindful of providing the same pay no matter the gender. Those biases are sometimes hard to correct and even recognize."
Gunby acknowledged it's "unlikely" the bill will see success this year, as Republican colleagues in the GOP-majority Legislature have told her "there's a discrepancy in beliefs about gender pay among Republicans."
None of these bills so far have earned committee approval in the current legislative session.
The past year has heightened some of the challenges women often disproportionately face in fully participating in the workforce, as families have juggled new responsibilities like remote schooling in efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
"The availability of high-quality child care is important not only because it impacts children's education during a crucial period of growth but because it also directly affects employment: Three times the number of women age 25-44 compared to men have stopped working since the pandemic started due to lack of child care," Doyle said. "Missouri could potentially lose 48 percent of their child care supply due to the decrease in the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that there would be only one spot in a licensed child care center for every six kids."
Statewide, there were 3,301 open child care programs in Child Care Aware's database prior to the pandemic; as of late July 2020, the number of open programs had decreased to 2,223, according to a report from the organization — which notes 94 Missouri counties in June 2020 were considered "child care deserts," where there are either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.
Cole County currently has a licensed and license-exempt child care capacity of 3,444, with a population of 3,765 children under age 6 with working parents, according to Child Care Aware of Missouri data.
Schupp has also filed legislation — SB 499 and SB 500 — intended to support child care facilities through tax credit subsidies.
"Prior to COVID, women — particularly women of color — had to overcome barriers, like unequal pay and lack of child care opportunities, in order to fully reach their economic potential," Doyle said. "And for many women, overcoming those barriers simply uncovered even more."