Gender pay gap varies widely by city

Except for their size, Oakland, Calif., and Wichita, Kan., don't have a lot in common. But when it comes to equal pay for men and women, they're really poles apart.

Last year, women in Wichita averaged only about half of what men earned. In Oakland, they earned a little more: $26,203 vs. $25,928.

The Oakland number is so surprising that even Census Bureau officials, who released the data last month, are hedging their bets. No one's quite ready to grant the city by the bay premier status in the fight for gender equality.

Nevertheless, such comparisons illustrate a larger point: pay equity for women varies greatly depending on where they live. While researchers have long made such comparisons among states, the census estimates reveal for the first time tantalizing clues about differences among cities.

"Fundamentally, women and men do tend to work in different types of jobs, and different areas have different ... economic structures," says Heidi Hartmann of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington, DC, think tank that ranks states by women's status.

For example: the group found New York State had the third-smallest pay gap between full-time employed men and women last year (not counting Washington, D.C.). Not surprisingly, the new data reveals that New York City ranks 12th in pay parity among the 59 largest cities the Census Bureau examined. But at the other end of the state, Buffalo only ranked in the middle of the pack.

Similarly, Texas earned a No. 8 ranking in pay parity (again, not counting Washington). But that masks the considerable differences among its cities.

While Houston boasted the fifth-smallest pay gap, Fort Worth notched the third-largest gap and El Paso, the sixth-largest.

"We do see geographical differences in the pay gap," says Heather Boushey, economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC. "One of the strongest predictors about whether or not the gap is big or small is the status of women."

Consider the Twin Cities of Minnesota - St. Paul and Minneapolis - Nos. 3 and 4 in pay equity. Bruce Erickson, a business and government professor at the University of Minnesota, credits the area's Scandinavian and Germanic heritage. "There's a tradition of women at least being co-equal and working as breadwinners too."

Both cities boast high average incomes and some of the highest proportions of adults with college degrees. Women in St. Paul earned 91 percent of what men earned; those in Minneapolis, 87 percent.

Another factor: unemployment.

"The city unemployment rate is ... typically below the national average - so the shortage of labor means there is a tendency to employ anyone who's any good," says Erickson.

The public sector of St. Paul, the capital of the state, may also play a role. Salary rates in governmental institutions tend to be geared toward equality between the genders, which may also partly explain why Washington, D.C., scored well.

Size also helps. Besides Houston, America's fourth-largest city, No. 2 Los Angeles and No. 3 Chicago also ranked among the 10 cities with the smallest pay differential. Meanwhile, smaller cities ranked at the bottom of the scale. Besides Wichita and Fort Worth, Colorado Springs, Colo., Cincinnati, and Toledo rounded out the five cities with the largest pay gaps.

The rankings are so new that some city officials seemed taken aback upon hearing them. "I am surprised, when you mentioned Wichita, Colorado Springs, and Fort. Worth, because they are progressive and well managed cities," says Bob Knight, Mayor of Wichita. "I would assume we're average."

Actually, Wichita has one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing employment among US cities. As home to five top aviation companies, its home county also ranks second in the ratio of high-paying jobs to total jobs, according to American Cities Business Journal's research.

Cities with heavy concentrations of manufacturing tend to rank low in pay parity, probably because the sector pays relatively well and remains dominated by men, says Ms. Hartmann of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Of course, working in cities with high pay equity doesn't guarantee high wages, either.

Fresno, Calif., registered the second-smallest pay gap in the nation, but women there only averaged only $16,770. Women in Colorado Springs, Colo., suffered the nation's second-largest pay gap, but earned $2,600 more than Fresno's women. How come? Men's earnings varied wildly. In Colorado Springs, the average working male made $33,172; in Fresno, he only made $18,294.

To be sure, experts approach this city data with caution. For one thing, it compares all women and men who had earnings in the past 12 months. The state-by-state rankings come from other census data comparing men and women who work full time.

"We only compare full-time men with full-time women when we're talking about the wage gap," says Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of civil-rights, labor, and women's rights groups based in Hyattsville, Md. That way, female earnings aren't artificially depressed by the proportionally higher numbers of women who work only part time.

For large cities, however, such differences may not prove that significant. Washington, D.C., the one city included in both census surveys because of its unique status, saw its full-time working women earning 86 cents on the male dollar; the figure for all its working women was 85 cents.

The more troubling finding revolves around Oakland. Do women there really earn more than men? Even Census officials are leery of the estimate because at the city level, their sample is so small.

When looking at cities by sex, "the sample size is going to get really small," says Kirby Posey, a survey statistician with the Census Bureau. More certain, he adds, are the pay ranges the US census also published for each city. In Oakland, the bureau is 90 percent certain that last year's median income for working women stood between $22,542 and $29,864. Working men averaged between $21,849 and $30,007. Of course, such ranges are so wide that it's hard to draw any conclusion, critics point out.

With a larger sample size - such as Alameda County, which includes Oakland - men appear to jump back on top: $34,720 vs. $27,761. Still, that means women are earning 80 percent of what men earn, the sixth-smallest gap among counties that included the 59 largest cities. So is Oakland America's first city of pay equity? "As much as I would love to believe that, I find it difficult to believe," says Ms. Boushey of the Economic Policy Institute. "There's not parity yet."

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