Women in Minnesota earn less than men even when they have equivalent training -- 80 cents on the dollar, to be exact -- and the wage disparity is greatest for women with advanced degrees, according to a new study of women's well-being.

The disparity puts Minnesota in a bind because in 2010, women for the first time made up the primary breadwinners in the majority of family households, said Lee Roper-Batker, president of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, which commissioned the report.

Families in the state weathered the last economic recession by relying more on women's earnings, she noted.

"Now when women are shortchanged in terms of their wages," she said, "it hurts not only them, it hurts their entire families and their communities."

The findings came despite years of dramatic change in the levels of women's education and employment.

"We thought if women did all the right things and went into the right fields and got the right kinds of education that this would correct itself, but unfortunately it's...not necessarily happening," said Debra Fitzpatrick, a co-author of the report and director of the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota. The study was based on 2010 American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census.

In education, for example, women make up the majority of workers in Minnesota, and yet their average salary in that profession is $45,527, compared with $54,648 for men, according to the report.

The disparity was wider for management positions: Men averaged $75,127 and women averaged $57,473. Medical occupations also showed a wide gender gap.

The salary gap was narrowest in computer science and math occupations, but the foundation found that relatively few young women are studying these subjects and choosing them for careers. Fitzpatrick said the workplace climates in these fields, which are still dominated by men, might be discouraging.

The report's authors argue that women need to arm themselves with negotiating "street smarts" to even out the gender gap in salaries and career opportunities.

There are other possible reasons for the disparities, including the possibility that women consciously trade off higher salaries for work flexibility and family-friendly benefits.

But there is plenty of evidence that a disparity exists, including a study showing that identical résumés were given more credence when they had men's names on them instead of women's names, Fitzpatrick said.

Annie Jacobsen doesn't expect much formal training in contract negotiations in her next two years of medical school at the U, or in the several years she will spend in her medical residency. So she and other members of the U's Women in Medicine are seeking help on their own. Last fall, they brought in an expert speaker on contract negotiations. "I have heard many women say the reason that this [disparity] exists is because women don't ask for more money," she said. "It's maybe that ...they don't recognize that they do have the choice to negotiate."

The report found that working mothers were the primary wage-earners in 2010 for 51 percent of Minnesota family households -- a 27 percent increase from two years earlier. This was a significant development even for Minnesota, which has one of the nation's highest rates of two-income households.

The authors linked that trend to the recession, which hit manufacturing and other male-dominated industries particularly hard. Women became primary wage-earners by default just by holding onto their jobs.

With the economy rebounding, it's unclear whether women will remain the primary breadwinners, Roper-Batker said. The foundation's next report on the issue will come out in 2014.

This year's report will be discussed at 14 community forums in the coming months. The feedback and the findings will be the basis for $1.5 million in grants from the foundation. Funding targets could range from engineering academies for girls to child care programs for working mothers.

Jacobsen, the medical student, hopes the efforts will result in a more equitable employment field when she finishes her residency. Right now, women entering medical practice can expect to earn $16,000 less per year than male doctors -- even if they have the same training and specialty.

Whether she chooses obstetrics or emergency medicine or internal medicine, Jacobsen plans to study her specialty's marketplace and the cultures, policies and expectations of prospective employers. "The best thing that we can do is network and be aware of what's going on, of what biases exist," she said, "and then do our best to counter that as we enter the workforce."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744