At first glance, it seemed like welcome news. A report prepared by the e-commerce technology firm Volusion showed that Minneapolis has the fourth-smallest pay gap between men and women compared to other large cities across the nation.
Women in Minneapolis who work full time now make 95.1 cents for every $1 of men in annual earnings, based on the most recent survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Only Sacramento, Calif., Los Angeles and top-ranking Aurora, Colo., had a smaller gender wage gap among major-metropolitan cities.
The report’s data about Minneapolis were solid. But as Sanjukta Chaudhuri, one of the state’s top researchers on this issue, noted: “It doesn’t tell us the full, nuanced story.”
The slight difference in pay likely has more to do with a preponderance of low-wage jobs in Minneapolis than with stellar gains in the fight for equal pay.
“The gender pay gap is counterintuitive,” said Chaudhuri, a research analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). “The more higher-end the industry, such as finance and insurance, the worse the gender pay gap gets.”
Research shows that the slightest pay imbalance comes in low-wage occupations and industries, which also tend to hire workers who are younger or have less education. These include jobs in food service, the hospitality industry, administrative support and waste management.
Women with college degrees and advanced education also are at a disadvantage when it comes to wage parity.
“The irony is that women are told you should get more education because it’ll help you earn like a man,” Chaudhuri said, “but it’s pretty much the opposite. [The pay gap] actually worsens with more education.”
Consider that the No. 4 ranking for Minneapolis was based on median annual earnings of $53,047 for women, compared to $55,758 for men. (The median is the middle value: Half of the city’s workers earn more and half earn less.)
The researchers at Volusion explained that while the gender wage gap in the United States is slowly narrowing, pay gaps vary significantly across cities and regions. That holds true in Minnesota.
The city of Blaine has the state’s widest gulf. Women there make 62 cents for every $1 paid to a man, according to the most recent data from the American Community Survey. The county with the largest disparity: Cook, which includes Grand Marais, on the northernmost region of Lake Superior. Women there earn 72.5% of what men make. In Ramsey County and Hennepin County, women earn 91.4% of men.
Still, Minnesota routinely ranks among the top states for women to live and work. Women make up 51.2% of the workforce — compared with 47% nationwide — and the gender pay gap is narrowing. Minnesota’s working women now earn 82.4% of men. In 2010, they earned 78.6%.
Minneapolis executive Anne Behrendt said the hurdles are real but that the needle is moving. Behrendt is the newly named chief executive and majority owner of Doran Cos., one of the Twin Cities’ most successful construction and commercial real estate developers.
Behrendt knows all too well how it feels to be the only woman in the room, and said industry leaders have focused on ways to draw more women in and to support them in areas of pay, leadership and problem-solving.
“It’s an industry that has a long way to go, but there’s a lot of positive energy around trying to figure out how we create a world where women can be successful in this field,” Behrendt said.
At Doran, where three of the eight-member executive team are women, an end-of-the-year financial assessment includes sitting down with the chief financial officer to analyze the pay of its 300 employees.
“We look at it with a singular question: Is this fair?” Behrendt said.
It’s not unusual to find a few cases where a man and woman in similar positions have unequal compensation.
“That is the starting point for an open and honest conversation,” she said. “Is this about skill level? Is it about experience? That’s the environment we’ve created. If there’s any inequity, we should dig deeper.”
Despite progress, wage parity in Minnesota and across the nation remains stubbornly out of reach, due to a complex mix of social and economic factors as well as institutional and cultural bias.
Women are more likely to work part-time hours. Women with children or who care for aging parents or other family members are much more likely to scale back hours or leave the labor market, at least temporarily.
There also are occupational “segregations” that affect women’s pay, Chaudhuri’s research shows. More than a quarter of Minnesota women are employed in health care and social assistance, the dominant industry for employing women. In those fields, women make up about three-quarters of the workforce. The median wage is about $21 an hour.
Geography also plays a role. In Minnesota’s well-to-do suburbs, the gender pay gap is notably large. In Plymouth, the city with the state’s highest median earnings, women earn 76% of men’s salaries: $86,500 for men compared to $66,174 for women.
All of which defies a simple solution.
“This is what is the maddening aspect of this,” Chaudhuri said. “There are all these factors that are preventing us as a labor market and as a society from closing that gender gap.”
Doran’s Behrendt said business leaders must “make an active decision to promote real change.”
“It’s not enough to say we’re not sexist or we’re a company that makes sure there’s pay equity between men and women,” she said. “That’s a great start. Sexism, like many other forms of inequality, is not a static thing. It’s nuanced, it’s complex, it fluctuates. I don’t think there’s a single person who’s in a leadership position who can say unequivocally: I am fair 100 percent of time and I’ve never done anything to perpetuate inequality among gender in the workplace. Real change starts with recognition of that.”