Around the County

Men, women and the amazing wage gap

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This year, Wyoming women earned 68 percent of men’s salaries on average. That’s according to a just released (October) study by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, writing for the state Legislature. Was anyone surprised? I doubt it. We’ve been at or near the bottom of the wage gap scale nationally for decades.

It did set me wondering about my own wage gap experiences, so I ran comparative figures on the salary differences I faced in my first real job in 1963, as a CIA operations trainee. That result did surprise me. It averaged out at 65 percent. Not much has changed in 55 years for Wyoming women, has it?

Back in 1963, of course, I knew better than to complain. “You were lucky we hired you at all,” some said. Others alleged that I was stealing food from the mouths of a deserving man’s children — a man whose place I had taken. Besides, I was in a man’s job and would end up like all other women, barefoot and pregnant.

And, not to forget the assumptions:

“You don’t have the strength to handle a firearm.”

“You’ll kill yourself if you pack your own parachute.”

“Survival training? You’d just get the rest of the team killed.”

I laughed, not caring. They didn’t understand. I was a Wyoming girl. I’d grown up with guns and could go home if I wanted time on the firing range. I’d ridden alone and camped in the wilderness. As for packing parachutes, I had no intention of becoming a paratrooper.

What I didn’t realize was how I was being handicapped by these and other — many other — “you can/may nots.”

What I also failed to see was how much those “can/may nots” would cost me over my 31 years in experience, opportunity and money. The dollar sum, in fact, is so outrageous that it’s jaw-dropping.

But that was a lot of water under the bridge and 55 years ago. In 1963, a woman needed permission and a male co-signer — legally — to do things like get a mortgage or a car loan. It was a period when the female ideal wore heels and nylons with perfectly straight seams, kept her waist wasp-thin with a girdle, and hobbled herself with a tube skirt.

Lack of equity was everywhere, but it was 1963, the year we got the Equal Pay Act, which at least was a big step in the right direction. Still, it took more years and more laws to hold employers accountable and make hiring and the workplace somewhat equal.

Yes, 55 years have passed. Around us, the country has seen a seismic change. Women wear pants; girdles belong in museums. Ladies pilot space shuttles, run Fortune 500 companies, sit in Congress and get nominated for president.

But here? Our seemingly intractable wage gap is ironic in a way, for Wyoming women really do all the things my early male colleagues claimed I couldn’t. We use firearms, go hunting, survive in the wilderness, enjoy parachuting as a hobby and perform a host of male-stereotyped jobs. Is there a ranch woman who hasn’t spent a freezing night out calving or had a blizzard blow down on her while she was moving hay or herds? Is there a trucking company that doesn’t employ women? I could go on.

Obviously, gender stereotyping is more excuse than explanation. More telling to my mind is the way we group socially, something that struck me when I retired and came home — the men go off to talk to other men; the women congregate with other women. Everywhere. For me, accustomed to mingling socially and professionally, the gender segregation took some getting used to. Recently, when I commented on some well-publicized, gender-restricted forums, I was told, “Women need to be in a safe, male-free environment to voice their opinions, while men can only speak freely when women aren’t present.”

Really? I don’t know if that’s true or not. Maybe it is. What I do know is that for the genders to work together, earning the same wage, men need to be comfortable speaking freely with women in the room while women must be at ease being there, knowing their views are welcome and respected.

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