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Professor discusses myth of choice as a factor in Utah’s gender wage gap

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Posted at 9:54 PM, Apr 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-10 09:19:49-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- According to a new study, more women in Utah are living below the poverty line than men.

The findings were released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), which gave Utah a C- when it comes to women’s poverty and opportunity.

When compared to other states, Utah ranked 29th through an analysis of women in education, business ownership, poverty and health insurance access. However, one of the biggest factors was the gender wage gap.

“Women earn 78 percent of what men earn, and in Utah that’s 70 percent of what men earn, so, we have a wider gap, and the question is: Why?” said Gunseli Berik, an economics professor at the University of Utah.

Berik addressed the issue at an event hosted by the Hinckley Institute of Politics on Thursday.

During her discussion, she pointed to a variety of factors that contribute to the gap, including education. In Utah, for example, fewer women are completing their college degrees, in comparison to the national average for women.

But Berik said there is one commonly cited factor that is a myth: choice.

“People claim that this is due to women’s choices, occupational choices, educational choices and unwillingness to work long hours and so forth,” explained Berik. “And of course, that is partially true, but these choices are not made in a vacuum.”

Berik argues that the notion women “choose” to have low-paying jobs is not a fair depiction of the issue. She, instead, points to societal norms in Utah that encourage women to leave the workforce, get married and raise families sooner than women in other areas.

“We sort of go along and adapt to our occupational choices, educational choices,” she said.

However, it’s those occupational choices that can exaggerate how wide the gender wage gap is, according to Mark Knold, a senior economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Data shows that high-paying industries, like tech and manufacturing, are heavily dominated by men. In contrast, lower paying industries, like education or nursing, are composed largely of women. As a result, comparing the two shows a large disparity.

“Not all industries pay equally,” Knold said. “And it is hard to go into individual companies and say, ‘I have an accountant and here’s a man, here’s a woman. Are they paid differently or equally?’”

According to the study from IWPR, if the gender wage gap closed, the poverty rate for working women would be cut in half nationally, from 8.1 percent to 3.9 percent.

“I think awareness, clearly, goes a long way,” Berik said.