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Oregon's earnings gap: How to close it

Girls must embrace math and science and consider jobs in the higher-paying tech field, in engineering, in medicine.

JULIA ANDERSON - Julia Anderson, Smart MoneyIt is not news that women generally earn less money than men. In Oregon, women working full-time (at least 35 hours a week) earned $734 a week, according to a just-released report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That is 83 percent of the $884 weekly earnings of Oregon men.

The good news is that the Oregon earnings ratio is better than the national average that has women making 81.1 percent of what men make, the BLS said.

Oregon ranked 16th in the nation out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The bad news is the earnings gap, which has shown only slight improvement in the past 17 years. This gap is not so much about gender wage discrimination as the kinds of jobs women tend to hold and the hours they work as compared to men.

Women, nationally and statewide, tend to work in industries that pay less — health care, retailing, marketing, human resources and education.

Men, on the other hand, more often work in higher paying jobs in construction, transportation manufacturing and yes, management. But why is that?

Many of the jobs in these higher paying industries could be done just as well by women as by men. And while some discrimination certainly still exists today, workplace labor laws make it less likely.

High school career choices

There's a reason for a major portion of the earnings gap and it starts in high school. Studies show that kids typically make career choices before they graduate.

In selecting a career direction, young men make wages a No. 1 priority while young women tend to focus on "flexibility and security" over pay.

Young women do not factor in what their career choice will mean in terms of household income, long-term savings and even retirement planning.

Of course other factors undermine the ability of women to earn as much as men in any given job. Dropping out of the job market to bear and to raise children may mean re-entering at a lower pay rate. They may choose jobs that have a better work-life balance and they may take a lower-paying job that offers more security, less risk.

As well, women who work in retailing, business services and hospitality may be more vulnerable to layoffs and downsizing and the resulting lost income.

Meanwhile, women may not choose to not take on higher-paying and more influential positions in an organization. And, according to a Wharton Business School study, they also may be passed over because of "unconscious employer stereotypes."

Long-term impact

All of this has a big economic impact because women tend to live longer than men and spend more time financially on their own in their later years.

Because women earn less during their working lives they have less opportunity to save money for retirement and will collect lower Social Security benefits based on their work record in retirement.

The bottom line is that half of American women 65 and older are single and, of those, about 25 percent are living at or below the poverty line in their old age.

So what's to be done? How do we close the earnings gap and make young women more aware of the long-term negatives of aiming low when it comes to jobs and income?

Obviously, high school career coaches must encourage young women to a choose career path for which they are passionate but that also pays well.

Jobs of the future require more technical skills. Girls must embrace math and science and consider jobs in the higher-paying tech field, in engineering, in medicine.

At least one study suggested that women just need to work more hours. According to The Atlantic magazine, 26 percent of men who work full-time worked on average of more than 41 hours a week, while only 15 percent of women took on over-time. More hours means more money.

Here's an idea. Why not give women free childcare that would allow them to be moms and have a job, too? And finally, it turns out that women are not that great at negotiating.

Let's teach them better negotiating skills and make sure they know what they are worth when it comes to landing and keeping a job and asking for a raise.

Julia Anderson writes for women about money and retirement at sixtyandsingle.com.

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