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Women flip the pay gap in this Georgia town. Here's why it's not a model.

Why We Wrote This

Chamblee, Ga., tops the handful of US cities where women outearn men. But the findings are more a window on persistent challenges than a recipe for closing the gender pay gap.

Courtesy of Amy Spanier
Amy Spanier, at her I.D.E.A. art gallery, is part of Chamblee's thriving community of women in business. The Atlanta suburb is one of a handful of cities in the US where the gender pay gap is reversed. Women here, on average, outearn men.

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Nationally, women workers earn 80 to 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. But in Chamblee, Ga., women on average earn $1.37 for every dollar earned by men. In an analysis of 2,700 US locations by The Pew Charitable Trusts, women outearned men in this small city and just six others. A combination of affordability, quality of life, and proximity to Atlanta has attracted residents and encouraged a healthy culture for women in business. Phyllis Stallman was drawn to Chamblee’s charm and reasonable cost of living when she moved her language translation business into a former preschool here. “Women are always encouraged to be brave and go out on their own when they are among other women who have done the same thing,” says Ms. Stallman. But if Chamblee is the kind of town where individual hardworking women can succeed, a seemingly progressive statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. More than one-third of Chamblee residents are foreign-born, and most of those are not citizens. Noncitizens are far more likely to be men than women – in a ratio of nearly 2 to 1 – and earn a median annual salary of $21,300, compared with $51,100 for their native-born women counterparts.

Stroll the streets and peek into the shops here and you’ll see hints of why this Atlanta suburb is one of the few places in the United States where women outearn men. Women engineers run an architectural firm specializing in renovations. An art gallery that doubles as community space was the dream of its woman owner. Even the proprietor of the city’s beloved Great Depression-era barber shop is now a woman, as are half its barbers.

Nationally, women workers earn 80 to 82 cents to the dollar of male workers. But in Chamblee, women on average earn $1.37 for every dollar earned by men, the largest gender-reversed disparity in the country. In an analysis of 2,700 US locations by The Pew Charitable Trusts, women outearned men in this small city and just six others. But the answers as to why these communities’ gender pay gaps are reversed lie in more than just the achievements of women, and highlight the persistent challenges to better wages and opportunities everywhere.    

A combination of affordability, quality of life, and proximity to Atlanta anchored Amy Spanier to Chamblee as she opened her dream project: an art gallery that blurs the lines between amateur and professional, fine and folk. She worked as an interior designer in New York City and Los Angeles before eventually returning home to the South. “It becomes so much effort and it’s so expensive to live that you never have anything extra, even if you are earning well,” Ms. Spanier says of her time in Manhattan. Her showroom is a historic grocery facing old train tracks, next to a stylish tea shop, a space she says she could never afford in a bigger city.  

Phyllis Stallman was also attracted to Chamblee’s charm and reasonable cost of living when she moved her language translation business into a former preschool here. Its success underscores how both circumstance and choices made by women to support each other boost the town’s community of women in business. Ms. Stallman says providing flexibility, along with benefits comparable to large companies – such as personal days and six weeks of paid maternity leave – strike a chord with her group. Her dozen employees stagger their start times between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. By the time afternoon rolls around, they’re joking with one another and their pace becomes more relaxed. “I like the fact that they look forward to coming to work,” Stallman says.

Women helping women

A generation after Stallman ventured into self-employment, she took a bet on another young woman looking to transition her career. Stallman’s son ran across a former high school classmate who said she had tired of working as a lawyer and was interested in starting her own business; he suggested she speak with his mother. That evolved into Stallman asking Lindsey Cambardella if she would like to join hers rather than go it alone. Stallman – who had begun to plan for retirement and decided she did not want to sell her “baby”  – eventually looked to the younger employee to keep the translation company alive. She offered her the job of CEO.

“Women are always encouraged to be brave and go out on their own when they are among other women who have done the same thing,” Stallman says. Ms. Cambardella herself founded a local network for women business leaders, a group that meets monthly.

Mayor Eric Clarkson says the city has not done anything special to encourage its unexpected superlative regarding women’s salaries, though he’s long been pushing ways to increase his city’s appeal to earners across the income spectrum. Mr. Clarkson’s wife, a buyer for a children’s clothing store, is the top earner in their home. He jokes that’s why he can spend his time as a public servant; he’s been mayor for the past 17 years.

From Spanier’s art gallery, heading through the small streets of sweetly modest bungalow homes takes you to Chamblee’s southern side, where signs change into Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Here, the city hosts about three miles of metro Atlanta’s famous Buford Highway, a multi-city corridor whose strip malls have been repurposed by the waves of immigrants and dubbed a “Global Food Paradise” by the Travel Channel. But if Chamblee is the kind of town where individual hardworking women can succeed, here it becomes visible that a seemingly progressive statistic doesn’t tell the whole story.

More than one-third of Chamblee residents are foreign-born, and most of those are not citizens. Latinos are projected to outnumber whites as the largest ethnic group in the city by 2022. Non-citizens are far more likely to be men than women – in a ratio of nearly 2 to 1 – and earn a median annual salary of $21,300, compared with $51,100 for their native-born women counterparts.

It’s not surprising that an area with racial diversity and even significant poverty, like Chamblee, would perform against the norm on rankings of the gender pay gap, according to Kevin Miller, a senior researcher with the American Association of University Women. Salaries for workers in poor sectors approach a “floor effect" – which means employees making minimum wage can only have so much disparity amongst themselves, Dr. Miller says. At the same time, jobs with six-figure earnings are “much more segregated by gender.” That points to the role of white male earners, who make such disproportionately high salaries that just their absence decreases pay disparities. Even in Chamblee, according to the Pew report, women on average earn less than men when comparing employees in the same fields. Miller likens Chamblee to the New York City borough of Queens, a majority-minority urban area where women’s economic achievements occur alongside poverty. 

Low-wage workers, mostly male 

Plaza Fiesta, a hub for Latin Americans on Buford Highway, is a 300-plus store shopping mall in the city’s dense commercial zone. Two decades ago, preparations for the 1996 Summer Olympics and a coinciding housing boom had boosted demand for manual laborers and immigrants. Plaza Fiesta’s manager, Julio Peñaranda, says those early years were a time when up to a dozen immigrant men may have shared one home, taking turns to use beds in living rooms as they slept according to their work shifts: morning, afternoon, overnight.

The immigrant population is skewed toward men because of the type of jobs offered and the fact that many hope to return home to families they support abroad after a few years of earnings, Mr. Peñaranda says. Women come in smaller numbers, fearing for their safety when they cross the border from Mexico. “Immigrants come here and do the menial jobs,” says Peñaranda. “We do the jobs people don’t want to do. We’re picking vegetables, we’re picking [up] litter.” 

Chamblee’s days as a hub for migrants could be hitting a wall, though: Peñaranda points to four nearby large apartment complexes recently demolished to make way for luxury homes. Last fall, The New York Times wrote that “few places in the United States have simultaneously beckoned undocumented immigrants and penalized them for coming like metropolitan Atlanta,” describing northern Atlanta’s participation in a Trump-era crackdown on undocumented migrants.  

If Chamblee’s noteworthiness as the city where women most outearn men proves to be fleeting, the less apparent and more durable cultural effects of such daily contact with successful women figures may not be. Katy Young, an advertising producer, who moved to Chamblee in the ’90s, says both the valedictorian and salutatorian at her son’s recent high school graduation mentioned #MeToo in their speeches. The same son attended the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. She thinks that political orientation may have been the result of her sons’ being raised by a woman breadwinner. “They saw a great example,” she says.

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