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Wisconsin’s pay gap between men and women is worse than the national gap

Female representation on corporate boards growing, but child care remains a barrier to workforce participation

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The pay gap for men and women in Wisconsin is worse than the gap between genders nationally, even as female representation on the state’s corporate boards continues to grow.

Nationally, women working in full-time, year-round jobs earn about 84 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. In Wisconsin, women make nearly 81 cents to every dollar a man makes, Census Bureau data shows.

A recent report from the University of Wisconsin-Extension found the pay gap persists, even for those with college degrees.

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Roughly one-third of the gap between men and women’s wages can be explained by things like age, education level, or choices of occupation or industry, but nearly 70 percent of the pay gap cannot be explained, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Sarah Jane Glynn, chief economist for the Labor Department, said at least a portion of the unexplained pay gap is caused by discrimination, despite state and federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination.

“We can’t quantify the impact of discrimination directly through economic modeling,” she said. “But we know — and have seen consistently for decades — that stereotypes and discrimination in employment absolutely limit the opportunities of women, and they limit the opportunities of people of color, when it comes to earnings and job opportunities.”

Julie Keller, executive director of the nonprofit Women’s Fund for the Fox Valley Region, said women are often penalized for exhibiting the same qualities that make men successful leaders. 

She said behaviors by a man that are seen as being “confident and decisive” are viewed as being “intimidating or bossy” when done by a woman.

“A lot of strong women are not promoted to those higher levels because those qualities are not valued in a woman like they are a man,” Keller said.

Glynn and Keller said efforts to increase pay transparency among employers could help address the pay gap.

When people know what’s a fair wage for their job, Glynn said, it’s much easier to identify and address inequities. 

“The status quo is like, ‘nice people don’t talk about money,’ so it makes it really hard for women to know when they are being discriminated against,” she said. “If you don’t have folks around you who are willing to share that information, it can make it really difficult to find out that there is a wage gap.”

A bill introduced by Democrats in the state Legislature would have required employers include a wage or salary range in job listings, but it failed to get a committee hearing in the state Assembly. 

Keller also said employers should think about conducting internal salary audits to make sure they aren’t unintentionally discriminating against employees.

“Look at all your people, look up their genders, their age and their race and see where people are being paid and see if you have any gaps there as an employer,” she said.

Representation in leadership positions could also help

Representation of women on Wisconsin corporate boards has increased in the last decade, but it still remains far lower than the share of women in the state population. 

In 2003, 30 women had board of directors seats at the state’s top-50 public companies. In 2023, they had 126 seats, according to the latest research report from the nonprofit Milwaukee Women Inc

Among the state’s top-50 public companies, women had 27.3 percent of board seats last year, up from 26.3 percent in 2022, according to the report. And among the top-50 private companies, women had 21.1 percent of seats, up from 20.5 percent in 2022.

Lori Syverson, president and CEO of Milwaukee Women Inc., said it’s encouraging to see representation continue to grow, but there’s still work to be done because women make up about half the state’s population.

“Around the country, there are some areas that are seeing a slowdown,” she said. “I think in Wisconsin, we’re still going to continue to see an increase. There’s been a lot of positive feedback that we’ve received from companies out there.”

Glynn said representation on corporate boards matters, especially when it comes to company culture. When women have high-level positions in corporations, she said it sends a message to the workforce and the public about the types of jobs women can do.

“The fact that we are continuing to see this steady increase in women’s representation at the highest levels in our economy bodes really well for the future,” she said. “I view it as something we should be really optimistic about.”

Access to affordable child care disproportionately affects women in the workforce

Women in Wisconsin have consistently worked at higher rates than women in the nation, but the gap in participation has been shrinking since 2019, according to a 2023 report by the COWS economic think tank at UW-Madison.

In 2022, Wisconsin’s women’s labor force participation dipped below 60 percent for the first time since the 1980s.

Keller said high child care costs in Wisconsin often force women to choose between working and staying home to take care of their children.

She said that can cause future costs down the road because that’s time a woman isn’t paying into Social Security and likely not paying into a retirement plan and getting an employer match on that plan.

“It really needs a bigger solution, and more of a public-private partnership type of solution,” Keller said. “Because it really is like the infrastructure of the economy. We need roads and bridges, and we need childcare to keep this economy going.”