Alaska gender pay gap closing slowly

Women in Alaska earned about 79.1 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earned in 2014, according to an analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The analysis, which compared the median weekly earnings for women in various careers across the state, found that women earned a median of $797 weekly compared to the $1,008 median weekly earnings for men. This is a larger disparity than the nationwide average, which has women earning 82.5 percent of men’s median earnings.

Alaska’s wage gap has closed slightly in the last year, decreasing 5.1 percent from 2013. The ratio has increased from 70.9 percent in 1998 and 1999, hitting a high of 79.2 percent in 2001 and staying between 71 percent and 75 percent since. The data from 2014 marks the first year the ratio has been above 79 percent since 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The state does have some of the highest wages in the country overall, so the raw numbers are higher than in other states, like Montana, where the median weekly earnings for women are $597. Median household income in Alaska was the second highest nationwide in 2014 after Maryland, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Proportionally, though, Alaska lags behind other states that have closed the wage inequality gap. Women in Hawaii are paid 92.8 percent of men’s median earnings, and women in the District of Columbia are paid 96 percent of men’s median earnings.

Part of the bias in the numbers could be in the type of employment available, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges. For instance, fewer women are employed in mining professions, which are some of the highest-paying jobs in Alaska. A 2011 study from the Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development found that if natural resource and mining jobs were dropped from analyses, the pay differential would increase substantially.

Other analyses have presented lower numbers. The Alaska chapter of the YWCA estimated in a report in 2015 that women in the state earn 67 percent of men’s median weekly earnings, using data from the Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development. The YWCA operates an initiative called Economic Empowerment, which offers classes in money management, financing, career enhancement and business development for women at its center in Anchorage.

The National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., advocates for equal pay for women. Its September 2015 analysis of the pay gap in Alaska stated that women lose approximately $1.1 billion in wages statewide.

“Families, businesses and the economy suffer as a result (of wages lost),” the analysis stated. “These lost wages mean families have less money to spend on goods and services that help drive economic growth.”

Alaska has an equal pay act, called the Alaska Human Rights Law, that prohibits employers from discriminating between men and women in salaries or wages “for work of a comparable character or work in the same operation, business, or type of work in the same locality.”

Several legislators have introduced bills to the Legislature to help address the pay gap in Alaska. Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, and Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, introduced HB 197 in April 2015, which calls for an annual report to be given on fair pay practices in the state. It also calls for a $15 minimum wage to take effect Jan. 1, 2017.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, introduced another bill on Jan. 21 that reaffirms the state’s law requiring employers to pay men and women equally and prohibits employers from forbidding employees to openly discuss wages, among other provisions.

“Equal pay for equal work is a necessary element of a just society, as it levels the playing field for workers in both genders to be compensated fairly for their employment,” Gardner wrote in her sponsor’s statement.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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