Wage gap hinders women

Females trapped between sticky floor and glass ceiling


— Lauren Pallotti can't understand why her male friends get paid more to build houses than she does to shape futures.

On summer breaks from college, Pallotti, 19, earns money babysitting. Her male counterparts work construction. She makes an average of $10 to $12 an hour. Her male friends make about $5 an hour more.

Pallotti worked at a Steamboat preschool once, but she gets paid more babysitting and doing errands and chores for families in town. She has questioned the responsibility that goes along with the $15-an-hour construction job of pounding nails compared to the $9 an hour she was paid working at the preschool.

"You have these kids five days a week," Pallotti said. "It is almost like parenting. We are responsible for shaping their future."

It is a thought that will likely haunt Pallotti for the rest of her working career.

Wage gap opens early

Wage disparity between men and women starts years before college.

Zac Harmon, an 11-year-old from Milner, gets paid $10 to mow his parent's lawn, which takes about an hour. His friend, 10-year-old Christine Dingman, is paid $4 an hour to babysit.

The average middle-school-aged girl makes $5 to $6 an hour babysitting. The average middle-school-aged boy makes roughly $10 to mow a lawn, which usually takes less than an hour.

"When you think about the different levels of responsibility and what you are paying for, wage disparity starts before you enter the work force," said psychotherapist Nancy Young, who taught women's studies classes at Colorado Mountain College. "It gets clearly laid out. Think about the culture we live in and how it impacts women in the work place."

Nationally, statistics show a woman is paid about 73 cents for every dollar a man makes. In Colorado, a woman earned about 74.5 cents to a man's dollar.

The 2002/2003 Yampa Valley Partner's Community Indicators Project shows median earnings for females in Routt County to be $19,171. For males it is $30,972. The gap is even wider in Moffat County. The median earnings for females is $13,207. For males it is $30,636.

Yet, area women have a higher level of education than men. A higher percentage of women than men in Northwest Colorado have some college education, associate's degrees and bachelor's degrees. Only when looking at master's degrees do men slightly outnumber women.

Young said 35 percent of the wage gap is explained by men's willingness to work occupations that pay more and 15 percent is explained by factors such as women taking time off to raise children. The other half is related to discrimination.

As America and Northwest Colorado continue to operate under two- or three-income households, wage disparity is not a women's issue. It's a family problem, Young said.

"In reality, very few families can afford to have just one person working," she said. "We have to close the wage gap. Not just for women, but because of the effect it has on families. Why wouldn't you want your wife, daughter, mother, sister to have financial equality?"

Inequality happens across the board. But the greatest disparity exists at the top and bottom of the pay scale. Women have trouble breaking free from the sticky floor of low-paying jobs and breaking through the glass ceiling to bring in top incomes.

According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, the greatest wage gap occurs between men and women who have only high school degrees and between men and women who have post-collegiate education. A woman with education beyond a bachelor's degree earns 69 cents to every dollar a man with the same education earns. A woman with only a high school degree earns 66.9 cents to every dollar earned by a similarly educated man.

'Men's jobs' pay more

Jolene Lyon wanted to prove she could make a good wage without going to college.

She was cleaning the offices of the Peabody Coal Co. when she heard of a job at the mines. Before her first day of work, the boss warned her co-workers to clean up their language.

Lyon started out as a drill helper, the only woman among some 75 coal miners. She also was the first female that lasted more than a few weeks at the mines.

That was 1995. Today, she operates the dragline, the biggest piece of equipment in Routt County. The dragline moves dirt with a 19-yard bucket and is integral in uncovering coal on surface mines. Operating it brings in one of the highest salaries for laborers at the mine, which has changed hands to Seneca Coal Company.

Lyon said she is the only female dragline operator in the state and knows of only two other women in the whole country who run the piece of equipment larger than a modest house.

"It would stop some women," she said. "Those that are worried about breaking a nail, what they look like or getting dirty, this is not the job for them. But it is good money."

Of Routt County's 10 major industries, mining produces the highest average salary per job, $61,790. In Moffat County, mining brings in the second-highest average wage at $60,015.

Very few women hold those jobs.

Mining combines with agriculture and ag services, construction and manufacturing to form a segment of the economy known as the transformative industry.

In Routt County, 35 percent of men are in the transformative industry, compared to 9 percent of women. In Moffat County, 49 percent of all men are in the transformative industry versus 8 percent of women.

With the exception of government jobs, the top five highest-wage industries employ a far greater percentage of males than females.

Women must prove worth

Like Lyon, many of the workers who come into the mines have no college education and little industry training, but they can work their way up to higher paying jobs. Unlike Lyon, most of those workers are men.

Lyon describes herself as "5-foot-2 and bulletproof." Raised on a ranch outside of Hayden, Lyon knows how to make a living outdoors and worked 12 years in construction before going to the mines. Both were hard industries to break into as a female, she said.

"I had to work so hard to get where I am at. I had to prove so much," Lyon said. "It is harder for a woman. You don't get equal treatment. They try to say that you do."

Being unionized, Lyon made the same amount of money as the men who do the same jobs.

Working through the ranks, Lyon advanced from a drill helper to a water truck and service truck operator to dragline oiler to dragline operator. Along the way, she said bosses intimidated her when the time came to test and advance to a higher paying job.

"That wanted me to know I was taking on a lot more dangerous jobs," Lyon said. "They tried to discourage me."

Drawn to low-pay fields

Instead of going for the higher-paying transformative jobs in mining and construction, most women gravitate toward the service industry.

The Community Indicators Project shows 67 percent of women in Routt County and 61 percent of women in Moffat County are in the service industry. In comparison, 45 percent of men in Routt County and 21 percent of men in Moffat County are in the service industry.

The average Routt County service-sector wage is $25,101. In Moffat County, it is $15,989. Both are far below average wages in the more male-dominated transformative and distributive industries.

With little training or education, it is easy for women to get stuck in low-paying jobs, Young said.

One-third of all women are office workers, she said. Many others are cashiers and housekeepers.

Mickey O'Brien owns the Holiday Inn in Craig and provides entry-level positions for housekeepers. O'Brien said the majority of her housekeepers are mothers who like the extra pay and a job that fits their children's school schedules. Most of O'Brien's housekeepers do not have college educations and about two-thirds have a high school diploma.

The housekeepers are paid $3.50 per room and can usually do two to three rooms in an hour. They also get benefits and paid vacation. O'Brien said the biggest challenge is keeping their morale up.

"They sometimes feel like second-class citizens," O'Brien said. "At the hotel, we spend a lot of time to make sure housekeepers are well trained, have good benefits and a lot of employee recognition."

At The Industrial Company, one of Steamboat's largest employers, 345 of the 3,821 employees are women. They migrate more toward office jobs than construction work, and that impacts their earning potential.

"The people who manage construction, the top people on projects, do make considerably more," Corporate Relations Director Gary Bennett said. "Generally, field positions probably have a greater earning capacity than positions in the office."

While the earning capacity is greater, the construction positions are also more vulnerable to layoffs or downsizing, Bennett said.

Women who have started in entry-level clerical jobs have been able to advance to the head of departments such as human resources. But, there is no reason why women cannot work in the field, Bennett said, and noted TIC supports the National Association of Women and Construction.

Generally, women's attention to detail and organizational skills make them good electricians, crane operators and supervisors, he said. Even though construction is a very good business to move up in without a college education, Bennett said women often aren't interested.

"It is an industry a little bit difficult to attract women to," Bennett said. "It is something women don't see themselves doing all of the time. It is the kind of job they don't focus on as young people."

Breaking the glass ceiling

A few years ago, Ruth Dombrowski thought the highest bank position she could get was supervising the operations area. At that time, men typically became the loan officers, which opened doors to top management positions.

Today, as vice president of First National Bank, Dombrowski holds one of the highest offices of any woman in Steamboat's four banks. But first she had to quit her job at another local bank, taking a pay cut to become a bookkeeper at a local store.

Dombrowski started in banking in 1973, a time when all the lenders were male and the tellers were female. She moved to Steamboat a few years later and took a job at her old bank.

She advanced from teller to head teller to loan secretary to loan administrator to overseeing tellers to overseeing new accounts. Then she hit the glass ceiling.

"It made me feel like all I would ever do is be in charge of operations, not be anything more," Dombrowski said.

To advance from the operations side, Dombrowski needed to become a loan officer. She watched as men advanced. If men and women did hold the same management positions, Dombrowski said men often had an easier time delegating duties.

"I think specifically when a woman formally takes over an area as a supervisor, expectations are always to do more," she said.

Once, an outside audit team made a comment about the disparity between the salaries of men and women, she said. A higher-up told her not to take up golf, because someone should stay at the bank to supervise while the men went golfing.

"You almost figure that you are grateful to have a job. You don't say anything until it gets too unbearable. You want to stick it out. You don't know what other alternatives are out there," Dombrowski said.

Absent at the top

A study showed out of the top 100 corporations in the country, women run four. The lack of women in high management positions exists in Steamboat.

Of the more than two dozen vice presidents TIC has, only once has one of those positions been held by a women. She retired recently. The company currently has a female vice president in its subsidiary company, TIC Wyoming.

Bennett said it is indicative of the number of women in the construction industry.

"As we get more women involved in construction over the years, I think we expect some of the women to move up through the ranks and see more and more in vice-president positions," Bennett said.

Women make up 43 percent of the 1,740 employees at the Steamboat Ski Area and Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel. Of the eight members of the senior management team, two are women. Trish Sullivan is the vice president of human resources and Laurie Good is the vice president of finance.

Public Relations Manager Cathy Wiedemer said the number of females in higher positions has grown in the last few years.

"Prior to three to four years ago, we didn't have any women at the senior level," Wiedemer said.

A different playing field

Noreen Moore, a member of the Women's Foundation of Colorado, said part of the reason women fail to rise to the very top is because they don't have the same opportunities to make business connections. Women are left out of deals made on the golf course.

"It's largely because guys have looked to each other to build up incredible networks to help each other out," Moore said. "The females have not been at the table."

Even in women-owned businesses, making it in a man's world has been tough. Kathy Connell and Renea Cowman jointly own Colorado Resort Properties, one of the top four property management companies in Steamboat. It has not been easy getting there.

After more than 20 years as co-owner, Connell said she still has male clients that look to their male manager, not the owners, for advice.

Connell said she and Cowman have learned the game, but that it was frustrating in the beginning. Phone calls were left unanswered and she hammered on doors to get into lodging meetings.

"I wanted to be part of the lodging committee and I said if I had to get a pair of Wrangler jeans, a can of Skoal and a cowboy hat, I'd do it," Connell said.

Connell eventually became president of the lodging committee and today is the City Council president. Even so, Connell said she still has to fight the good ol' boys network.

Discrimination and dollars

Connell and Cowman were lucky to find a venture capitalist to help start their business. She was a female and a mentor in the early years.

"Most new businesses fail because of lack of capital. Having a female mentor was fantastic," Connell said.

Fran DiBartolo, director of the Northwest Colorado Small Business Development Center and Women's Business Support Center, said one of the biggest obstacles for women is access to capital.

"Generally, women come to me and feel like they are not being represented in banking institutions seriously," she said.

The Small Business Administration focuses on minorities and DiBartolo said her office counsels mainly women. Many women have trouble getting loans because they don't have formal business plans or their proposals are not considered good business.

"I can't tell you how many women have come to me with these issues," she said.

Negotiating for equality

When Congress enacted the Equal Pay Act in 1963, women were earning 59 cents to men's dollar. Moore is not all that impressed with progress since then.

"What that means is we have increased a third of a percentage point a year on the dollar. For a goal that was set 40 years ago, we have only realized a third of that," Moore said.

Although wage disparity has become somewhat institutionalized in America's workplace, the wage gap remains largely because women fail to negotiate for salaries as well as men, Moore said.

"I think women are not trained to value what they leave on the table," she said. "Typically we leave money on the table so we can get in the door."

Young used the example of two employees starting at the same company with the same skills. The woman fails to negotiate and accepts a $30,000 salary while a man negotiates for a $35,000 salary. By the end of their careers, what started as a $5,000 discrepancy will result in the man making $500,000 more.

"Men believe they are entitled to more. Women are not sure if they are worth what they will be paid," Young said. "One thing women really need to learn how to do is to negotiate well for themselves."

Some of the reasons women tend to be poor negotiators is cultural, Young said. A woman who negotiates is seen as pushy, a man who negotiates is assertive.

"This is inside of us," Young said. "Because women are (raised) to be nice and to take care of relationships. "

Also, the working culture has made it impolite to ask coworkers what they earn. While some see it as proper etiquette, that barrier makes it hard for women to know if they are being treated fairly and it keeps wage disparity a secret, Young said.

Women also tend to hold jobs working in education and social issues. And because they are passionate about their jobs, Moore said, they are more willing to be paid less.

Another reason women tend to have lower wages is their unwillingness to change jobs. Women are more relationship based than men, making it harder for them to leave one job so they can advance to a higher position elsewhere, Moore said.

"For equitable wages, are you prepared to leave? Are you prepared to find another job?" Moore said. "Women get stuck in relationships, they get stuck in jobs."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.