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My Turn: Does New Hampshire have a wage gap or a values gap?

Tuesday is Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day when women’s earnings finally catch up to men’s earnings from the previous year. More than 50 years after President John F. Kennedy signed the nation’s Equal Pay Act into law, working women and their families are still waiting for the gender wage gap to close. In New Hampshire, the earnings of women who work full-time, year round still lag behind men’s in almost every industry and occupation, from highly-paid professionals such as lawyers and physicians to low-wage retail and service jobs that require minimal skills and training.

Even when researchers limit comparisons to men and women with the same jobs, work experience and educational qualifications, women’s paychecks come up short.

Yet some politicians, including prominent Republicans in the New Hampshire Legislature, reject the idea that sex discrimination is linked to gender disparities in pay and promotion. They insist that New Hampshire employers do not discriminate against anyone on the basis of sex. The real problem, they say, is a “jobs gap” – men and women make different choices about work and careers, and women are more likely to enter jobs in lower-paying professions like teaching and nursing.

The assertion that women’s behavior and job preferences are to blame for the wage gap demands closer scrutiny. Let’s consider, for example, the approximately 11,000 Granite State women employed as registered nurses. According to new wage data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, top-earning RNs in New Hampshire bring home the bacon to the tune of $89,490 a year. With a median hourly wage of $30.13, registered nurses earn considerably more than rank-and-file workers in male-dominated manufacturing, maintenance and repair occupations. And economists predict the demand for registered nurses in our state will remain high through 2020. In short, registered nursing is a pretty smart career choice for New Hampshire women – and men – who want stable, long-term employment with a family-sustaining wage.

Although job differences clearly contribute to slow progress on closing the wage gap, social and cultural factors are also in play. Just like women in the Granite State, more men are employed in low-wage and middle-income jobs sectors than the small number employed in highly paid professions. Rather than a “wage gap’’ or a “jobs gap,” the real root of women’s pay inequality may be a values gap. Jobs that require advanced skills and training will always pay more than others. But in today’s economy, employers are willing to pay more for workers that produce money, goods, knowledge and property value – work traditionally performed by men – than for workers that develop human potential or meet human needs.

How else can we explain the fact the in New Hampshire, administrators of pre-school and child care programs are paid less than workers in every other managerial occupation and earn less than one-half of the hourly wage for management occupations overall?

Why do pre-school teachers in New Hampshire earn less per hour than bank tellers and bicycle repairers? Why are animal trainers, stock clerks and order fillers in New Hampshire generally paid more than our child care workers? Why do certified nursing assistants in New Hampshire earn less per hour than parts salespeople and auto body repair workers? Why is the hourly wage for janitors and cleaners 19 percent higher than the hourly rate for maids and housekeeping cleaners?

All these occupations require certain skills and training; all are important to the healthy functioning of our businesses and communities. But some jobs pay less, even substantially less. Why? Is preparing a classroom of 3- and 4-year-olds for school readiness fundamentally less valuable to the New Hampshire economy than fixing a bike?

Wage-gap deniers will protest that “the market” determines how much our jobs are worth. But we must realize that market values are a direct reflection of our social values and priorities. Until we recognize the true value of all the honest, hard work that produces essential goods for our economy and society – and pay workers fairly for the actual value of their work – the gender wage gap will continue to deny true equality for women in our state and nation.

(Judy Stadtman is campaign director and field coordinator for the New Hampshire AFL- CIO.)

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