Business & Economy

Advocates say new data is key to closing the gender pay gap

Sue Minter listens to speakers at the Change the Story conference Dec. 18th in Barre. Photo by Jane Langner courtesy of Capstone Community Action

BARRE — The Vermont Commission on Women, a state agency that works to advance opportunities for girls and women, has been around for 55 years.

In that time, “we have never once had a moment where we weren’t trying to close that dang wage gap,” said Cary Brown, the director of the agency.  

But the Commission on Women and its partners have high hopes for a report newly created by a four-year-old partnership. They hope the effort, called Change the Story, will help them describe some of the underlying reasons why women continue to take home less money than men.

White women in the U.S. earn 22% less than white men do. For Hispanic women, the gap is 46%. Women are disproportionately likely to make less than $11 an hour, according to the report. Change the Story, an effort aimed at improving women’s economic well-being in Vermont, was formed in 2015 by the Women’s Commission, the Vermont Women’s Fund and Vermont Works for Women.

Speaking at a gathering put on by Change the Story Wednesday, Brown said the commission has always carried out research, collected data, and provided information to policymakers. Since 2015, Change the Story has been developing its own data on women’s wages, employment patterns, small business, and access to leadership positions. The report released this week incorporates its two earlier reports on wages and employment patterns and adds new information.

Brown said at a meeting for advocates that she has been working for years to explain to decision-makers that the gap between men’s and women’s wages is complicated and multi-faceted.

“I’m trying to tell people that it’s so much more complicated than it is usually portrayed, which is it’s just a matter of rotten people discriminating against women,” Brown said. “That happens, but there’s so much more to it. This report goes into some of those reasons, and backs it up with some of the data to illustrate that.”

At the root of the wage gap are historical, cultural and practical forces, said Brown and others. At the event Wednesday, attendees met in facilitated sessions to talk about the reasons for the pay gap. Afterward, one table told of a group effort to contact a lawmaker about an issue affecting the poor. The group of women never got a response, but when a man wrote about the same issue, the lawmaker (a woman), replied to him.

“It was an experience that really stuck with me in policy work,” said the advocate.

Bias is often unconscious, said Brian Tagliaferro of Capstone Community Action. He noted that the Change the Story event was being held in Barre’s Old Labor Hall, which is not very accommodating to visitors with disabilities.

“In a room full of champions who are passionate about things like equity and accessibility and opportunity… even with all the best intentions we can be blind to the barriers that others may face,” Tagliaferro said.  

The report attributes 40% of the wage gap to gender bias, discrimination, persistent gender norms, and the economic impact of experiences that disproportionately affect women such as sexual harassment and intimate partner bias. It says a national study showed employment evaluators consistently gave lower marks to equally qualified candidates when the candidates indicated somehow on their resume that they had children.

It said women are at least four times more likely than men to reduce their hours or leave the workforce to take care of children or other family members. Even if they returned to the workforce, their missed earnings and their lost opportunities for career advancement resulted in lower lifetime pay and lower social security payments after retirement, the report said.

“When I had my first daughter, it was more affordable to stay home than to put her in care,” said Darcy Brouillette, who works at Vermont Technical College. “There were definite tradeoffs career-wise.”

To narrow the wage gap, the report’s recommendations include prioritizing data collection and publication; enacting paid family leave and raising child care subsidies; supporting livable wages for child care workers and others; recognizing the impact of bias and discrimination; and increasing the presence of women in science, technology, engineering, math and trades careers.

Advocates hope the new data will help them convince lawmakers to pass paid family leave and minimum wage legislation in the coming legislative session.

“There are no other sources of clear data and a deep dive into the gender-specific data which present an analysis of the unique situation and disparities for women,” said former lawmaker and former gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter, now the head of Capstone Community Action in Barre.

There’s hope for change because society has quickly evolved, and now more men are working on women’s economic issues, said Meg Smith, director of the Vermont Women’s Fund.

“When I started at the women’s fund six years ago, it was all women working on behalf of women. Now I see and hear from so many men who want to get engaged in helping push gender equity and wage equity,” Smith said.

The rapid spread of the #metoo movement shows that people are open to changing long-held, traditional beliefs, Smith said. 

“Look what has happened in the two years since the women’s march and the Harvey Weinstein story breaking and the #metoo movement,” she said. “There has been incredibly rapid culture change. I think a lot of young people have already exceeded that barrier of implicit bias.”

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