Gender pay gap hurts Vermont’s economy, advocates say

Cary Brown

Cary Brown is the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Women earn 84 cents for every dollar paid to men.

That statistic was the focal point of a press conference on Tuesday that culminated in a proclamation signed by Gov. Phil Scott recognizing “Equal Pay Day” in Vermont.

Cary Brown, the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, an advocacy group for gender parity explained that “if women’s wages were raised up to where men’s are, that would be about $5,565 extra dollars for every woman in Vermont, about a billion dollars in total to Vermont’s economy, which is around 3.3% of the state’s GDP.”

According to a new report, women are also lagging behind in leadership roles in the workplace and state government.

Michele Leber, chairwoman of the National Committee on Pay Equity, said the pay gap between men and women exists largely because of historical discrimination against women.

Women learn at an early age the distinction between the value of their work and that of a male counterpart, Leber said. Boys are generally paid more to mow a lawn than girls are paid to babysit children, she said.

That disparity continues through life, Leber said.

Eliminating the income disparity between men and women would reduce poverty in the state by 53 percent, Scott said.

The governor said his goal is to make Vermont’s workforce stronger and more diverse, and he’s “committed to this issue in practice and in policy.”

In practice, Scott has made an effort to fill positions in his administration with women. The governor has hired the highest percentage of women in the state’s history, at 43 percent.

The Vermont Legislature also has a higher than average ratio of women to men. Nationally, an average of 25 percent of state legislators are women. Vermont is second only to Nevada in the percentage of female lawmakers, with 39.4 percent and 39.7 percent, respectively, according to a report from Change the Story.

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson said this represents an important step.

“I can’t wait for the day we stop counting,” Johnson said of her distinction, along with State Treasurer Beth Pearce, of being only the third woman to fill her position.

Pearce is only the 11th woman — out of 296 officers elected since 1778 — to be elected to statewide office in Vermont, according to a report from Change the Story.

Vermont and Mississippi are the only two states that have never elected a woman to Congress.

“I think we need more women in elected office across the state,” Pearce said. “I’m going to continue to work to make that happen.”

Wage gap worsens with age

It’s far more common for women today to fill elected positions than in years past, and the difference between what women and men earn has diminished over recent decades. As recently as 1980, women earned only 60 cents for every dollar American men earned, according to Census Bureau figures.

As a result, older women have less savings for retirement, Leber said.

This is a real problem in Vermont, Pearce said.

Vermont women are 80 percent more likely to live in poverty once they’ve retired, she said. Annual pensions for women are on average less than half of what retired men bring in, Pearce said.

“Right now, women do not have as much retirement security as men, and we need to change that,” Pearce said.

Vermonters ought to be able to find “dignity in retirement,” Pearce said, but as a result of historical forces many women “are put behind the eight-ball from the get go.”

Pearce and Johnson both urged women — especially young women — to run for elected office, as a path toward fixing this historical injustice.

They also said legislators currently in office are working toward the same end.

Legislative approaches

Johnson said lawmakers are taking a variety of approaches to brighten the economic future for women.

Child care is “a responsibility that falls largely on women,” Johnson said, and lawmakers are seeking to reduce that burden. They introduced H.10, legislation that would subsidize child care for low-income Vermonters, although the bill appears unlikely to advance this session.

Scott has also sought to appropriate $7.5 million in this year’s budget toward childcare subsidies.

Paid leave for parents, Johnson said, would also help families “with those kinds of issues that women, more often than not, must shoulder.”

Lawmakers sought to pass a family leave bill, H.196, that would have guaranteed most workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave. That bill, too, appears unlikely to be adopted this year.

Johnson said that domestic violence is another issue affecting women’s earning power. She pointed to another bill, H.422, that would take firearms out of the hands of some domestic abusers.

“This doesn’t specifically address the pay gap, but if women are not safe in their homes, achieving economic independence is difficult,” Johnson said.

Finally, Johnson said, lawmakers attempted this year to move forward legislation increasing Vermont’s minimum wage. Four separate bills were introduced, H.64, H.93, H.302 and S.40, but all are on hold until next year.

Women more frequently than men work in minimum wage service jobs, Johnson said.

Mike Polhamus

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