MILWAUKEE CO. (SPECTRUM NEWS) -- Women living in Milwaukee County — just like women all over the U.S. — still tend to earn less than men, according to a new study published by the Wisconsin Policy Forum. But Milwaukee’s gender pay gap has been shrinking over the past few years, bringing women closer to earning equal pay, researchers found.

In 2018, women in Milwaukee County on average earned 85 percent as much as men — compared to just 81 percent in 2010, according to the study. These figures were measured using Census Bureau data on median annual earnings, looking at full-time workers who live in the county.

“There was a little bit of a narrowing. We saw that happen as well in Waukesha County, and nationally that there was some progress being made to narrow the gap,” study co-author Joe Peterangelo says. “So that was a positive finding.”

By the same measure, women across the U.S. earn 79 percent as much as men, meaning Milwaukee is closer than the national average to equal pay. In neighboring Waukesha County, women earned just 76 percent as much as men.


Courtesy: Wisconsin Policy Forum



For Jennifer Dirks, president and CEO of professional women’s organization TEMPO Milwaukee, it was no surprise that a gender pay gap existed in the county.

TEMPO is one of three organizations that make up the Women’s Leadership Collaborative, along with Professional Dimensions and Milwaukee Women Inc. The group commissioned the study to get real data on the idea that pay in Milwaukee wasn’t equal.

“Where we saw maybe some optimism was that the gap had narrowed,” Dirks says. “And in terms of how it stacked up to the national data, I think that was comforting to us.”

But the smaller gap doesn’t exactly mean Milwaukee women are making more money than others in the U.S. In fact, one factor may be that Milwaukee men are making less: In the county, men’s median earnings were 8 percent lower than the national average, the study says. Women’s earnings, in comparison, were 1 percent lower than the national average. And in Waukesha County, even though the pay gap was wider, women earned more on average than men and women in Milwaukee.  

“How Milwaukee's gap is smaller, which you would think is great, is tempered by, it's not because women salaries are higher,” says Betsy Mueller, the other co-author on the study. “It's because everyone's salaries are lower, especially men's.”

Where does the pay gap come from?

A huge number of factors can play into causing the gender pay gap, Mueller says.

“It’s very complex, and everything has to be complex when you’re trying to address it too,” she says.

One of these factors is the types of jobs women hold. In their analysis, Mueller and Peterangelo broke down Milwaukee employment data into 23 major occupational groups. What they found was that women were underrepresented in some high-paying fields and overrepresented in ones with lower wages. For example, women held only 20 percent of lucrative architecture and engineering jobs, but 84 percent of lower-paying healthcare support positions.


Courtesy: Wisconsin Policy Forum


Even within these groups, women made less than their male counterparts, the researchers found, which might have to do with the specific jobs they hold. In some cases, these gaps were very wide: Women in the legal field earned $60,000 per year on average, compared to $101,000 for men, according to the study.

“The pay gap is bigger in the legal field than any other occupational group we found,” Peterangelo says. “And that's partly driven by women being underrepresented as judges and lawyers, and overrepresented as some of the lower-paid paralegal and legal assistant kind of jobs.”

There are also other factors that are hard to quantify, Mueller says. Women may be expected to take time off to be caregivers for children or aging parents. Gender discrimination may affect hiring and pay negotiations. Society might push girls toward female-dominated industries and jobs — the ones that tend to pay less.

And because of limited data, the study doesn’t include part-time employees (who are more likely to be women) or account for race. Nationally, the pay gap is wider for women of color, especially black, Latina and Native American women.

“The underlying theme is this gap is always going to be harder to close for women of color,” says Marit Harm Spransy, TEMPO’s director of membership and programs.

What steps can lead toward equal pay?

Because there are so many factors that create the gender pay gap, there’s no simple way to close the gap either, Mueller says. The study brings up some potential measures: allowing for more flexible schedules, increasing affordable child care options, expanding paid family leave policies.

On the individual level, Dirks says the Women’s Leadership Collaborative is planning widespread training sessions for women on salary negotiations. They’re also working to educate businesses and workers on pay equity issues.

“This is the time to level the playing field for women,” she says.

To complicate things, the COVID-19 crisis has meant major job losses in Wisconsin and across the world, and early data shows that slightly more women than men are losing work.

But the pandemic has also meant more flexible work days and an increase in working from home — factors that could actually benefit women’s earnings in the long run, Spransy says.

“I’m hopeful that the pandemic … is an opportunity for employers to see that, oh, women can succeed at these positions, even though they are taking on the brunt of caregiving,” she says. “I hope that this is a culture shift for companies.”