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Where do women out-earn men? Hint: not a city.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 1, 2003


Call it one small step for women, one little leap for pay equity.

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In a handful of the nation's counties, the typical full-time working woman now earns more than her male counterpart - sometimes a lot more, according to census figures released this week.

One might expect to find these bastions of gender enlightenment in, say, Massachusetts (rated "best for women" last year by one women's group) or Minnesota (home of the nation's first pay-equity law for state government workers).

Instead, they're nestled in rural places few people have visited. And they're led by a small, no-stoplight county called, of all things, King, and located in a patch of north Texas where men still wrangle cattle and NOW refers to time rather than the National Organization for Women.

The idea that a handful of rural counties lead the nation in women's pay equity surprises many experts - not to mention the residents themselves.

"I'll be danged," exclaimed Traci Butler, secretary of King County's agricultural extension office upon hearing the news. The Monitor's finding challenges widely held notions about rural America's traditionalism.

In fact, rural women have long played important roles on the farm and in their communities. And as they move into paid jobs and elected positions - as they have in King County - their contributions are beginning to show up in income data. That's one reason, some rural observers speculate, women in the countryside seem to be catching up before their sisters in the cities and suburbs.

Pay-equity advocates aren't cheering, though. For one thing, the trend remains spotty. If a half-dozen or so counties have turned a corner, that leaves well over 3,000 that haven't. "So often, people reach for any shred of evidence" that women have reached equity, says Barbara Gault, research director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington.

But women still lag. While liberals and conservatives debate causes and remedies, everyone admits the gap has narrowed but still exists. Last year, women earned 76 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts received.

And that gap pops up virtually anywhere one looks: from Boston ($5,014) to San Francisco ($6,011) to Minneapolis ($4,553) to Miami ($3,975). It shows up in the nation's 25 largest metro areas, its 15 most densely packed urban counties, and its 15 least densely packed rural ones. The women of sparsely populated Eureka County, Nev., get paid only slightly more than half what the men make. (All these figures are for 1999, on which the 2000 census income data is based.)

But here and there, rural counties are beginning to break the mold. For example, looking solely at people who worked year-around and full-time, the Monitor found 15 counties, all rural, where women out-earn men.

Of course, much depends on how you count. Comparing the median incomes of all workers with earnings, part-time and full-time alike, another three counties jump to the fore, two of them urban. Curiously, no place makes both lists except King County, Texas.

Put another way: That particular stretch of north Texas is the only county in America where the typical working woman and the typical full-time working woman both bring home a bigger paycheck than their male counterparts. And the differences are substantial: $3,000 and $8,790, respectively.