Utah's Gender Wage Gap

By Gwen Kervin, Regional Economist

When analyzing the profile of women in the workforce, economists often point to a wage gap between men and women. Such a gap is calculated by dividing the median female wage by the median male wage. The median is considered a better measure of the central tendency than averages, which can skew on the high or low end. 

There are several datasets which can be selected for comparison, but this analysis will utilize the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey. It shows that nationally, adult women who work full-time earn approximately 81% of what their male counterparts earn. Looking at Utah, the ratio drops to 72%. Note that seasonal and part-time workers are excluded from these estimates as they introduce variability between the gender measures. Only full-time employment is used as it produces the identical standard needed for the uniform measure.   

The reasons behind the male-female disparity are varied, with education, occupation choice, and work experience all factoring into the equation. Looking at education, roughly 33% of Utah women over the age of 25 held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2020, just behind U.S. women at 34%. By comparison, 37% of Utah adult men hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Incidentally, Census data shows that Utah women have out-paced U.S. men in obtaining at least a bachelor’s degree, with 32% of U.S. 25+ males holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Women with more education earn more than those without. However, in spite of the increasing education levels of Utah women, they still earn noticeably less than their male counterparts. Interestingly, the largest wage gap occurs between men and women with bachelor’s degrees.

Part of the larger wage gap between education levels has to do with occupational choice, which for workers with a bachelor’s degree starts with the choice of a major. Many of the occupations with the smallest wage gap are those that require a math or science background – occupations that are often dominated by men. Women in Utah are more likely to choose majors in education or arts and humanities. When it comes to science and engineering, the majors that lead to higher paying jobs, Utah women lag both the men in Utah and women in the rest of the nation. As of 2020, over 43% of Utah men with a bachelor’s degree or higher pursued a science and engineering degree, compared to just under 23% of Utah women and 27% of U.S. women.

Education and degree choice aside, women are often not well represented in the higher-paying industries. In Utah, women make up 66% of the employment in the health care and social assistance sector, and 59% in the educational services industry, both of which are among the lower-paying industries. Meanwhile, men dominate the mining, utilities, and professional and scientific technology sectors, which offer the highest median salaries.  Compared to women in the rest of the United States, women in Utah are less likely to move into higher–paying, male-dominated occupations, which contributes to the state’s higher wage gap.

Clearly, the role of women as mothers can’t be overlooked. Family obligations play a role in occupational choice. Indeed, part of the occupational selection seen in the data strongly implies an attempt to balance work and family commitments.

With 28% of its population under the age of 18, Utah is the youngest state in the nation. Utah has more families with three or more children than the U.S. average, and these larger families, with their higher childcare costs and time commitments, tip the scale toward family when balancing work and family obligations.

Women tend to shoulder a larger proportion of childcare duties, which may cause them to enter and exit the workforce as they balance family and work commitments. Thus, the choices women make regarding their labor force participation are often different from those of men. Women are more likely to work part-time or choose occupations with more flexibility when their children are young. In fact, women in Utah are more likely to work part-time than women in the U.S. as a whole.  About 30% of women in Utah aged 16 to 64 work part-time compared to 21% of U.S. women, and 16% of Utah men.

However, labor force participation for Utah women lags that of women in the United States, especially during the years when women have children at home. 2020 American Community Census data shows 72% of women 20 to 64 were in the labor force, slightly lower than the rate for U.S. women, which stands at 73%. The gap widens for women with school-age children. Labor force participation for Utah women with children under six is 62%, compared to 72% for U.S. women. Female participation rates increase as children get older. Utah women with children 6 to 17 have a 75% participation rate, compared to 78% for U.S. women.

In general, women spend less time in the workforce than men do, which means less time to gain tenure that generates a higher wage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2021, women from the ages of 25 to 54 had fewer years of tenure across all education levels, with the exception of a master’s degree. U.S. women between the ages of 45 and 54 had approximately 1.2 years less tenure at their current job than men, which still doesn’t account for time out of the workforce. This can be seen when looking at industry-specific tenure as well. The education and health services sector, whose jobs are dominated by women, had a median tenure of four years in 2021. Meanwhile, the mining, utilities, and manufacturing sectors had a median tenure of 5.2, 6.0, and 5.2 years, respectively – all of which pay more and disproportionately employ men.

Education, occupation choice, and work experience all factor into lower wages for women relative to men. However, these don’t explain the full picture. Even when controlling for these factors, a portion of the gap is still unexplained. However, women in Utah are making headway. More Utah women are graduating from college than ever before, allowing them to demand higher wages. Furthermore, a larger portion of younger women are pursuing majors in science and engineering which will bolster their future earning prospects. Encouraging women to enter higher-paying industries that are typically dominated by men and reducing the barriers to entering them would potentially boost wages for women as well.