Gender pay gap: Top 5 best and worst states

The pay gap between men and women has steadily narrowed during the past few decades. Women earned 77 cents for every dollar men earned in 2011, compared with 59 cents in 1963, the year President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act.

The gap – as ranked by the difference in median annual income between men and women who work full time – varies greatly state-by-state, according to a recent analysis of Census data by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Some states have rooted out instances where women are being paid less than men for the same job, narrowing the gap. Other states have economies based on industries that are dominated by men, keeping the gap comparatively wide.

Here is a look at states with biggest and smallest gender pay gaps.

5. California

An employee restocks bread items inside a Fresh & Easy store in Burbank, Calif. California's large service industry helps it rank highly on narrowing the gender pay gap. REUTERS/ (Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS/File)

Women in California's full-time workforce make 85 percent of what men do, putting it No. 5 on the study's list states with the narrowest wage gaps. In raw numbers, the median salary for women is $41,817, compared with $49,281 for men.

California's high ranking is partly because of the state's large service industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) ranks the leisure and hospitality industry as one of the top sectors for women’s pay equity. That means California’s service industry somewhat outweighs the state’s high-tech industry, in which men often earn more than women. Another contributing industry is agriculture, which the BLS also ranks as a sector with high women’s pay equity.

But California's high unemployment rate is also a factor. Areas with high unemployment see narrow wage gaps, Ariane Hegewisch, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told Forbes magazine. California has the third highest unemployment rate in the nation: 10.9 percent.

4. Nevada

Tera Burbank (r.) and her husband, John Clark, of Las Vegas were unemployed for two years. High unemployment can drive down the gender pay gap. (Julie Jacobson/AP/File)

Nevada’s earnings ratio – 85 percent – breaks down to $35,484 for women versus $41,803 for men.

Nevada’s two largest industries – tourism and mining – are gender-segregated industries, with mining dominated by men and tourism industries by women, according to the AAUW. But the strength of the leisure and hospitality industry in Nevada gives it a comparatively narrow pay gap.

A narrow wage gap isn’t necessarily an indication of high wages, though. States with low overall earnings and high unemployment (Nevada has the highest unemployment rate) often have narrow gender wage gaps, Ms. Hegewisch told Forbes.

“So if you don’t have good opportunities for either men or women, we often find a lower wage gap. A job is a job,” she said.

3. Maryland

A worker at the National Security Agency (NSA) sits at her computer terminal in the Threat Operations Center in Fort Meade, Md., in 2006. Maryland's high percentage of government jobs helps its pay equity. (Jason Reed/REUTERS/File)

Women made 86 cents for every dollar men made in Maryland, the third highest ratio. The median salary for women was $48,748 versus $56,708 for men in 2011.

Maryland’s success in closing the wage gap is influenced by its high ratio of government workers as well as unions, says Michele Leber, chair of the National Committee on Pay Equity.

She compares Maryland with its neighbor, Virginia: they have similar ratios of government workers, but Virginia ranks 29th.

“Virginia is a right-to work state, which will lower the earnings ratio,” Ms. Leber says.

2. Vermont

People fill the aisles at a job fair in Montpelier, Vt., in 2010. (Toby Talbot/AP/File)

In Vermont, women earned $38,177 and men earned $44,057, giving it the second highest women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio: 87 percent.

One contributing factor to its high score: state legislation bolstering equal pay rights. Vermont passed the Equal Pay for Equal Work law in 2002, which makes it easier to file wage discrimination claims, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity.

"These laws like the Vermont equal pay law are really designed to get at that problem by making sure when employers pay different rates to men and women for doing essentially the same work, that they have an extremely good business-related reason for doing so," Cheryl Hanna, a professor of constitutional law at Vermont Law School, told Vermont Public Radio.

1. Washington, D.C.

A program analyst with the Government Printing Office hands out copies of the 2004 federal budget in Washington, D.C., in this file photo. (Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

The top "state" is not a state, actually, but the nation’s capital. In Washington, women earned 90 cents to men’s $1 – $60,332 compared with $66,760.

There is greater salary transparency in the public sector, particularly in federal government occupations, says Catherine Hill, director of research at AAUW. Some 29.1 percent of workers in Washington are in the public sector, according to Gallup.

“If you are in a [general services] pay scale, you know the range that your colleagues can earn,” Ms. Hill says. “This transparency allows people to know if they aren’t being paid fairly.”

47 to 51. The bottom five

Workmen install casing in a relief well at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana in 2010. (Peter Andrew Bosch/AP/File)

Four of the five lowest ranked states – Wyoming (No. 51), Louisiana (50), West Virginia (48), and North Dakota (47) – have similar economic characteristics contributing to large pay discrepancies: They each are driven by male-dominated industries such as mining, oil production, and manufacturing.

“The fact is, we still have a workforce that is segregated by sex,” says Hill. In order to close the wage gap, industries need to be become more gender integrated, she says. 

Wyoming ranks lowest in gender pay equity – women’s earnings are 67 percent of men’s earnings, which is 10 percentage points lower than the national average, 77 percent. Men make up almost 90 percent of the energy workforce in Wyoming, which includes mining, oil, and natural gas extraction, said Wenlin Liu, senior economist for the Wyoming State Economic Analysis Division, in an interview with the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.

Louisiana is the third-largest producer of oil and oil refining, the second-largest producer of natural gas, and one of the largest commercial fishing industries in the US, according to the state’s Department of Administration. It ranks second to last with women making 69 percent of what men make – $31,844 a year compared with $46,313.

One of West Virginia’s largest industry is coal mining, which likely accounts for its 48th-place ranking. Women made $29,688 to men’s $42,124 – 70 percent. Likewise, North Dakota (47th), is dominated by mining and manufacturing. The 73 percent earnings ratio there results from women earning $32,462 to men’s $44,660.

In Utah (No. 49), different factors explain why women make 69 percent of what men do: low college graduation rates and occupational choice.

“Utah women are less likely to enter occupations that pay well – particularly in those that require math and science background –than U.S. women (who make their own share of low-paying job choices),” writes regional economist Lecia Parks Langston on the Utah Department of Workforce Services website.

Ms. Langston lists other factors, including more career interruptions, less on-the-job experience, and fewer hours worked. Women made $32,843 versus $47,573 for men in 2011.