Miami Herald: “Miami-Dade women were closing the earnings gap with men. But has that progress stalled?”

Progress in closing the yawning chasm between the earnings of men and women appears to have stalled in Miami-Dade in the past couple of years, even as economic conditions for women improved marginally.

Those findings come from a new report commissioned by the county government and conducted by Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center. The study, based on U.S. Census Bureau data, found persistent and large gaps in the earnings of men and women across virtually all occupations in the county, from office and retail workers to engineers and lawyers.

In a perhaps even more worrisome conclusion, FIU’s researchers found that the gap in earnings between men and women grew since the university’s first study for the county on the subject two years ago. That initial study found that men earned 13 percent more than women in full-time jobs, an improvement over the 15-percent gap that existed in Miami-Dade in 2000.

The reason is related to overall wage stagnation, said the report’s principal author, FIU researcher Maria Ilcheva. While women’s earnings in Miami-Dade rose slightly in all occupations, men’s earnings grew a bit more. That difference accounts for the widened gap, she said.

The Miami-Dade earnings gap is somewhat narrower than the difference in earnings between men and women across the United States. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that nationally women make 82 percent of what men do, a figure its researchers said has remained relatively stable for 15 years.

But a closer look at the local gap by FIU raises some troubling comparisons. The gender gap is even higher in professional occupations, as much as 47 percent in the legal field, and has in some cases grown over recent years, the report found.

Ilcheva stressed she’s not ready to say overall progress on closing the gender pay gap has stopped or is headed in reverse in Miami-Dade. She said such a broad conclusion would require more than two years of data. The report is based on 2016 Census Bureau data, the latest available at the time of its drafting, Ilcheva said.

Her research team has now started analyzing 2017 Census Bureau data in preparation for a third report later this year that may clarify the direction of the trend, Ilcheva said.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who sponsored the legislation funding the studies, said the persisting gaps underscore the need to understand the trend and shape an appropriate response.

“I don’t think we can rest on any laurels,” she said. “What’s important is shining a light on the fact that this gap still exists.”

The new report does highlight some positive trends, but also outlines the difficulties involved in figuring out the reasons for the persisting lag and coming up with solutions.

Women continue catching up to men in educational attainment. Miami-Dade women are now slightly outpacing men in graduating from college, the report notes. Just over 28 percent of women in the county now have bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to 27.6 percent of men. Nationwide, one-third of U.S. adults had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2016, according to the Census Bureau.

More young women, meanwhile, are choosing to study business, science and engineering, fields with higher pay scales than the careers in education, social and health assistance and the arts that most women with college degrees in Miami-Dade have elected in the past. The report says that of women with college degrees, 37.5 percent have degrees in science, engineering and related fields. That represents a significant increase, according to a chart in the report, though it does not specify how much. The percentage of female college graduates with degrees in business and the arts and humanities was flat compared to previous years.

But both those positives come with large caveats. Most of Miami-Dade’s women with college degrees still work in the lower-paying arts, education and humanities fields, which helps explain a portion of the persisting earnings gap, the report says.

And the higher the career pay scale, the report found, the bigger the gender earnings gap is. The report suggests the gaps are especially acute in some elite professional jobs in Miami-Dade. In law, women earn a median of $61,782, a full 47 percent less than men. In professional, scientific and management services, the gap was 27 percent, or a median of $33,038 for women and $45,500 for men.

That suggests that closing the educational gap by itself won’t solve the problem, and that continuing bias by employers may help explain the earnings gap’s stubborn persistence, Ilcheva said in an interview.

“Yes, there is a generational change that’s occurring,” Ilcheva said, referring to the growing interest among women in pursuing business and so-called STEM fields. “I don’t want to throw a bucket of cold water on that. But if you look at the occupations and earnings for business and engineering, there is still a large gap.”

In 2016, the most recent year for which data was available, women with bachelor’s degrees made 82 cents for every dollar earned by men with college degrees in Miami-Dade. The median for women was $51,908, compared with $76,662 for men. That’s a 32-percent gap, up from 27 percent in 2010, the report says.

The largest gap was in management, business, science and the arts, where men made 25.8 percent more than women. The smallest gap was in sales and office work, where men made 14.6 percent more.

The report pointedly avoids an explanation for the persisting gaps, noting that a lack of data on causes makes it hard to develop an explanation.

Some critics of efforts to address the earnings gap argue that it merely reflects choices by women to take less-demanding jobs, work fewer hours or eschew overtime or, in the case of professional jobs, to favor a “mommy track” that allows time off for child-rearing but brings lower compensation.

Ilcheva said an equally valid view may be that women confront a “motherhood penalty” imposed by employers who elect to pay them less to begin with, on the assumption they will be taking time off to have children or want to spend more time at home.

Other contributing factors for the overall earnings gap noted in the report include the fact that higher rates of women than men don’t work, and that most working women in Miami-Dade have part-time jobs.

“The only agreement that exists is that there isn’t a single reason for the gap,” Ilcheva said.

The Miami-Dade County Commission launched an effort to study the earnings gap issue locally in 2015, under an ordinance sponsored by Levine Cava. The reports go to the Miami-Dade Commisson for Women to develop recommendations to address it.

So far, that’s resulted in resolutions urging county agencies to do more to encourage and support STEM education and careers for young women and efforts to ensure gender equity in county contracting, among other initiatives.

The county has focused its efforts on its own workforce and vendors because the state bars it from passing legislation regulating wages, Levine Cava said. She noted the report found some success in lowering a longstanding salary gap between male and female county employees, from 14 percent in 2016 to 11.3 in 2018. One successful tactic has been making it easier for employees to highlight advanced degrees, which trigger higher pay.

When it comes to the private sector, Levine Cava said, she would like to see employers make formal, voluntary commitments to pay equity among men and women and monitor those efforts to ensure they work.

Ilcheva said the newest report suggests even more must be done to address persisting or even growing earnings gaps.

When Congress passed the Equal Pay Act prohibiting wage discrimination more than 50 years ago, she noted, the earnings gap was three times as large. At the gradual rate the Miami-Dade gender earnings gap had been narrowing as of two years ago, she noted, it would have taken women 30 years to catch up to men.

The question now, she said, is whether that will take even longer if that already slow progress is stalling.

“Obviously the gap has closed, but the fact that it still persists speaks to that it’s not just a matter of the occupation women choose, but that it needs a more conscious effort by employers and others to close that gap,” Ilcheva said.

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