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Unfair share

Women still earn less than men, and it's putting them at risk of living in poverty

Illustration by Morgan Welch

Poverty in Oklahoma is consistently above the national average, and women are even more likely to experience poverty than men. Throughout the country, this trend is present across all races and family types—women of color have higher poverty rates than men of color; single mothers are more likely to live in poverty than single fathers; and poverty is higher among single women without kids than it is among single men without kids.

Why are women more likely to experience poverty? Because on average, they make less money. A typical woman working from age 17 to 70 will earn over half-a-million dollars less than a typical man. In a time when families depend more than ever on women’s wages, this is a troubling trend. We can identify three main causes.

First, caregiving responsibilities often cost women wages. Affordable child care is becoming less available in Oklahoma. When families decide it makes more financial sense for one parent to leave work to care for children, it is much more likely that the stay-at-home parent will be a woman.

Oklahoma has made some strides in reducing wage disparities for caregivers with policies like paid family leave for state workers (adopted last year). But paid leave would be more helpful if it were available to all workers. We all get sick, and we all need time to care for our loved ones.

Second, a low minimum wage is especially harmful to women. The current wage of $7.25 an hour has not been raised in almost 10 years, and the minimum wage has been losing value for decades. Given that seven in 10 minimum wage workers in Oklahoma are women, our low minimum wage is particularly problematic for women—even more so if they are supporting a family.

Unfortunately, despite a national trend toward a higher minimum wage, the Oklahoma Legislature has not recognized our low minimum wage as a real problem. Several bills have been introduced in recent sessions to raise our minimum wage and none have received consideration. In 2014, the Legislature made it impossible for local governments to address this problem by prohibiting them from raising their minimum wage. But sometimes when policymakers refuse to act, citizens can—several other states have raised their wages with a vote of the people.

Third, some women earn less because their employers pay them less than they pay men doing the same job. Research shows that women and men are often treated unequally in hiring, performance evaluations, and promotion decisions. One reason pay discrimination persists is because it’s so difficult to discover. For the past five years, advocates for pay transparency have introduced legislation to clearly prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who share their wage information with others. Unfortunately, those efforts have, so far, been unsuccessful. This secrecy is exactly the culture that fosters wage discrimination. Ending pay secrecy is a crucial part of closing the gender wage gap.

If equal pay were a reality in Oklahoma, the poverty rate for working women in the state would be reduced almost by half, and their earnings would increase by about $5.4 billion a year. When women are paid fairly, their families are more economically secure, and our economy is healthier. Closing the gender wage gap should be a priority for all of us.

Courtney Cullison is a policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute (okpolicy.org).

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