Work is Changing, But Pay Gap Between Men and Women Remains Hard to Narrow in Nebraska, Nationwide

Nov. 11, 2021, 6 a.m. ·

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On average, Nebraska women make 80 cents per each $1 a man makes. (Photo Illustration by Daniel Wheaton / Nebraska Public Media News)

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Meaghan Stout was 16 years old when she first learned she was being paid less than a man.

She was the head hostess at Round the Bend Steakhouse, in Ashland, Nebraska, training a younger employee. The two were bantering about some of the more frustrating parts of the job when he mentioned his pay.

"The only reason why I'm still here is because I make $11 an hour." he said, according to Stout,. She said she didn't believe it. "No you don't," she replied. "Yeah, I do," he said.

Armed with that information, Stout asked for a raise and got it.

Speaking to the owner of the restaurant, she found out that the kitchen manager had given raises to the male workers, but not to the women.

Meaghan Stout
Meaghan Stout stands behind the bar at "Someplace Else" in Crete, Nebraska. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Even after getting the raise, Stout said she was mad at the kitchen manager for giving her co-worker that raise so early in his time on the job. The new employee had a fraction of her experience, but was compensated more because he was friends with the kitchen manager.

“It was kind of depressing to only be barely in high school and finding out really quickly that things like that actually happen,” Stout said.

Now 23, Stout has left that job behind, but the experience made her more willing to ask how much people are compensated for the work that they do.

Stout’s experience is reflected in federal data, academic research and the lives of many Nebraska women. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Nebraska women make about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes.This pay disparity, known as the wage gap, persists after decades of women fully participating in the labor force – and even 50 years after women were guaranteed equal access to education after the passage of Title IX.

And, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt America’s relationship to work, gender differences in pay stubbornly remain.

Understanding the wage gap

Gender segregation in jobs, views on parenting and cultural mores all play a role in the wage gap nationally and in Nebraska.

Even though the Equal Pay Act has been a law since 1963, many businesses have found ways to suppress womens’ compensation.

Sandra Loughrin, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, researches the social reasons why men and women’s work is valued differently at the societal level.

It mostly comes down to ideas about caregiving, she said.

“So if you think of traditional, let's say women's work, it's often associated with women being innate caretakers,” Loughrin said.

Because that view is tied to gender, so-called “women’s work” is viewed as unpaid labor.

These biases may appear s when men are assumed to be more loyal to a workplace because they are generally not expected to take the lead in child rearing. It also manifests in women not getting promotions or new jobs because of the assumption that their families would take precedence over their job.

A 2007 study tested this theory by sending out resumes in which the only difference was gender and parenting status. Mothers were less likely to be called back for interviews than fathers.

Gender segregation in jobs also perpetuates the wage gap, Loughrin said. For instance,

housekeepers tend to be women of color. Those jobs tend to have low compensation, so the pay gap gets revealed when looking at both gender and race at the same time.

“That pay gap is much more of a reflection of a lot of things going on at once,” Loughrin said.

Traditional views can also be magnified in rural communities.

Amy Prior lives in Imperial, Nebraska, a small town in the southwest corner of the state. She frequently travels across the western part of Nebraska. Among farm families, Prior said, women are typically expected to find jobs that offer good health insurance.

That may mean taking a lower paying job just because the insurance is better.

“There's a lot of things that can go wrong in a day,” Prior said, “So it's vital that you have that (insurance) because if you don't, you could very well lose the farm over it.”

Given the physical challenges associated with farming, most farm families fall into this dynamic of women working for less pay in town, Prior said. And, with a limit to those opportunities in smaller communities, there are more chances for the wage gap to come into play -- such as when small business owners only offer jobs to their friends.

Prior encouraged her daughter to get a college degree outside of agriculture, hoping that she’ll find employment in a more equitable field.

Legislating a solution

Due to the many factors that contribute to the gender wage gap, experts say, a variety of solutions may be needed to ensure greater equity.

That’s been the strategy of the Omaha Womens’ Fund, which advocates for equity for women in all facets of life. The organization aims to address gender-based violence, reproductive health and economic stability.

The organization has partnered with State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln on a bill that would prevent employers from asking about salary history when hiring people.The idea is that if a person is currently paid less, the new employer may prefer the candidate that would agree to a lower compensation.

“A salary history ban simply asks employers to pay any potential employee for the value they bring to the company, not the value that their prior boss placed on their work,” said Tiffany Seibert Joekel, the research and policy director of the Omaha Women's Fund.

The bill aims to prevent employers from short-changing job applicants who apply with lower pay expectations. If two equally qualified candidates were finalists for a job, businesses are likely to hire the person who would accept smaller compensation. Starting at a lower salary can limit one's earning potential, perpetuating the wage gap cycle.

LB249, is still pending in the Legislature. Whether or not it advances through the process will be determined at the start of the new session in January 2022.

Pansing Brooks has been involved in women's equity issues for years, and she likens bills like this to “taking bites of an apple,” as a means to reaching a goal.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media)

Critics of the bill argue that it would burden businesses, but the senator disagrees, as she believes employers that offer better pay and benefits will see better hiring pools -- even in states with low unemployment rates like Nebraska.

Still, there’s the issue of the “broken rung on the corporate ladder” for women. Despite people of both genders getting hired at equal rates, more men receive promotions earlier on, which ripples throughout the corporate pipeline, Joekel said.

Thousands of women have left the workforce during the pandemic, so Joekel said she hopes businesses will realize that they need to offer better benefit packages and more flexible working hours to get highly skilled women back into the workforce.

“Women primarily shoulder the caregiving responsibility in their families; and so that can mean caregiving for young children,” Joekel said. “It can also increasingly mean caregiving for elderly parents and relatives. Too often, they are forced to choose between their commitment to their jobs and their careers, and their commitment to their families.”

Joekel said increasing access to childcare, and expanding paid family and medical leave may be the only way to prevent women from having to choose between career and family.

As to the role that higher education can play in advocating for equity once students graduate, Loughrin has an idea for a solution for continuing the spirit of Title IX from campus to the workplace: Mentoring.

Loughrin said she discusses the pay gap with her students, encouraging women to advocate for themselves to make sure they are compensated fairly. She sees this as a key to getting more women into STEM fields.

Despite the challenges, Joekel remains optimistic,

“The opportunity is tremendous,” Joekel said. “The opportunity of pay equity is tremendous for women. It's tremendous for families. It's tremendous for our workforce, and it's tremendous for our potential economic growth.”

Minding the gap

According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, women have been earning more degrees than men every year since 1987. In the 2019-20 academic year, women earned 14,884 of the 25,745 postsecondary degrees awarded in Nebraska.

Experts agree that closing the wage gap will take years, and progress has already been made among people newer to the workforce, as pay is more equitable among people younger than 40.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the gap increases with age no matter the level of education. The only outlier is people with Associates’ degrees, where women are paid more by men due to many medical jobs that only require this kind of degree.

The wage gap plays out differently in each job sector. The most extreme inequity is among sales occupations, and the most equitable is among jobs in the food service industry.

Megan Stout didn’t know that she was an outlier when she was working in Ashland, but the experience has made her more willing to fight to erase the wage gap.

“Hell, I’d love to make more than a man any day,” Stout said.


This story is part of a collaboration between Nebraska Public Media News and the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism initiative including Nebraska Public Media News, KCUR, IPR, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.