'It just never gets better': The gender wage gap still plagues Minnesota, U.S.

The gender pay gap exists at all income levels, but it widens as women earn more. Race exacerbates the disparity.

Ellen Ewald, who worked at the Norwegian Consulate in Minneapolis, successfully sued for pay discrimination. Though Ewald won, she lost career opportu
Ellen Ewald, who worked at the Norwegian Consulate in Minneapolis, successfully sued for pay discrimination. Though Ewald won, she lost career opportunities, friends and years of her life in court. She now works with her husband, Terje Mikalsen, from home.

— Jerry Holt

Ellen Ewald took the job at the Norwegian Consulate in Minneapolis with the understanding she and her male counterpart, both in new roles, would earn the same salary and benefits.

Then she learned his job provided health insurance coverage for his children: a benefit she didn't have. She dug deeper and discovered something even more alarming: He was earning $100,000 a year to her $70,000.

"In this case, it really wasn't about the money," said Ewald, who successfully sued the Norwegian government for discrimination. "It was the principle."

Women receive less pay than men across the globe, and have earned about 80 cents on the dollar in the United States for decades. The gender pay gap amounts to $1.6 trillion annually, with losses ballooning as women progress up the ladder: Though there's a pay gap at every income level, it widens to about 60 cents on the dollar for the highest earners, according to data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve.

There are many factors that contribute to women's diminished earnings, including time away from work for caregiving, lower pay in female-dominated sectors and, in some cases, blatant discrimination. Race exacerbates the disparity, the Fed data shows: In 2019, a white woman at the middle of the income ladder earned 74 cents on the white male dollar, while a Latina woman's pay was 53 cents, a Black woman's 51 cents and a Native American woman's 48 cents.

"It continues to really be a challenge for us as women of color," said Antonia Apolinario-Wilcoxon, president of Equity Strategies LLC and former community relations director at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. "We are doing the hard work, we are going to school, we are trying to excel ... and still this continues to not allow us to move forward. And of course there are so many reasons for it."

Regardless of the cause, the fact that roughly half of working Americans have less money to spend due to their gender has implications for the U.S. economy, said Sarah Jane Glynn, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.

"Sometimes the way the wage gap gets talked about is cents on the dollar, and I think it can leave people with the impression that we're talking about pennies. We are not," Glynn said. "When you add it all up, if you think about it in terms of the overall economy, it's an enormous amount of money. And when folks have less money, it is bad for the economy."

The cost of fighting back

The responsibility has traditionally fallen on individual women to narrow the gender pay gap, whether at the negotiating table or in the courtroom. But fighting back is easier said than done.

Unlike in lower-wage jobs where pay is a set hourly rate, higher-paying jobs allow room for negotiation that can exacerbate the gender pay gap, said Misty Heggeness, an associate economics and public affairs professor at the University of Kansas.

"Oftentimes, women are expected to behave within our work environments, we're expected to collaborate, we're expected to be congenial," she said. "And so sometimes women don't push for more because data has shown that when we push against the grain, it often ends up negatively impacting us."

And while women might suspect they're earning less for equal work, that can be hard to prove.

Leda Barnes wonders what her life would be like if she'd earned 20% more — as much as a man, give or take — through 50 years of working dozens of jobs from retail to a position on Capitol Hill. Though nobody talked openly about their salary, she said, she could often tell that men earned more.

"It was pretty obvious by the way that they were treated, the responsibilities that they had," she said.

Lilly Ledbetter, a longtime Goodyear Tire employee whose unsuccessful wage discrimination case prompted the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, famously learned from an anonymous note that male colleagues were out-earning her. The law changed the deadline for victims to file a lawsuit, allowing each paycheck, rather than the initial pay decision, to reset the clock.

Still, lawsuits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits sex discrimination in employment — are rarely a good option, said Jill Hasday, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. Not only are they difficult to win, she said, but they come with significant financial, emotional and career costs.

"There can be a lot of discrimination and very few suits," she said.

Even though Ewald won her case, she lost career opportunities, friends, associates and years of her life in court.

"It was really painful. And I think that's what people should understand when a woman brings up a case," she said. "It's not like, 'Oh yeah, this is a piece of cake,' because it's just not. And it costs you a lot."

Mothers lose out

Between 2005 and 2019, a woman with a bachelor's degree from a top-rated school earned fewer than 72 cents for every dollar her male counterparts earned, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. If that woman had children, her pay dropped to just 47 cents on the dollar compared to more than 80 cents for childless women.

"The gender wage gap has really become more of a motherhood wage gap," said Kristine West, an associate economics professor at St. Catherine University. "So women without children and women in early parts of their careers are much closer to parity with their male colleagues. And then we still continue to see that around the age where families are most likely to start having children. We see that men get a fatherhood wage premium, and women get a motherhood wage penalty. And then we really see those gaps start to widen."

Also at play is "occupational segregation," or the idea that women tend to work in lower-paying sectors for reasons including social norms, lack of educational opportunities, family caregiving responsibilities and workplace violence and harassment. Last year, Black and Latina women lost a total of $96 billion compared to white men because of occupational segregation, according to the Labor Department.

Even within the same industry, men earn more: Registered nurses, for example, are 86% women, Labor Department data shows. But while women in the field earn a median salary of $77,582, men earn $84,879.

Men are also more likely to take on what Nobel Prize-winning economist Claudia Goldin calls "greedy work" — less-flexible jobs that reward long hours in the office, for example — while women, especially those with caregiving responsibilities, tend to opt for greater flexibility at the expense of pay.

The result: fewer women in high-paying, high-powered jobs. In Minnesota, men make up 51% of earners overall, and women make up 49%. But among the highest earners, 76% are men and 26% are women. The disparity is growing: Last year, women's representation in C-suite positions declined for the first time in nearly 20 years, according to research from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Dr. Susan Hingle was chair of Southern Illinois University's School of Medicine when she saw her colleagues' salaries for the first time. She had the second-longest tenure of the group and was serving in three leadership positions but was the lowest-paid.

Though her employer eventually fixed the disparity, she said, the experience showed how a lack of pay transparency and discomfort with questioning a relatively high salary can perpetuate the pay gap.

"There's huge differences in gender related to burnout and wellness, and a big piece of that is not feeling a sense of belonging, not feeling a sense of being valued," said Hingle, president of the American Medical Women's Association. "When you are doing the same work as a male colleague, and they're making $50,000, $100,000 more than you, it's going to be natural, particularly in a capitalistic society, to feel less than."

Ellen Ewald at her home in Minnetonka on April 7. Ewald's five-year discrimination case against the Royal Norwegian Embassy ended with a federal judge awarding more than $270,000 for lost wages and emotional distress, plus nearly $2 million in legal fees and costs. The case settled shortly after that award by the court. "It's not that my case should have changed the world. It was more that [it] should have been a piece in a bigger movement that seems to never take off," she said. "It just never gets better, and I don't understand."

A stagnant gap

The gender wage gap has plagued the U.S. for decades despite various attempts to rectify it.

The disparity between men's and women's earnings began narrowing steadily in the 1980s following a slate of federal anti-discrimination laws passed in the '60s and '70s. When the Equal Pay Act (EPA) passed in 1963, women working full-time, year-round jobs were earning 59 cents on the dollar, according to the Census Bureau; by 1993, that number was 72 cents.

But for the past 30 years, women's pay has leveled off at about 70 to 80 cents on the dollar, even though education gaps between men and women have reversed.

Closing the pay gap requires "multipronged approaches" that shift the focus from workers to employers, institutions and government policy, said Jasmine Tucker, vice president for research at the National Women's Law Center.

"Let's move this burden away from women, who I think are probably doing everything they can and more," she said. "Putting the onus on one person to determine their future, especially if we're talking about women of color in a male-dominated or a white male-dominated field, they're just set up to fail already."

In recent years, state-level pay equity laws have been effective in reducing pay disparities. The Minnesota Legislature passed a law last session banning employers from asking applicants about salary history and took up a bill this session that would require employers to include salary ranges in job postings. Pay transparency can benefit a range of workers, not just women, and can help employers hone their hiring process, according to recent research from the Minneapolis Fed. Implementation, enforcement and resulting comparisons between workers could present challenges, the central bank said.

Countries including Australia, Ireland and Japan require employers to disclose the gender pay gap among their employees. Though the U.S. does not have a national requirement, there are legal, financial and public relations incentives for companies to remedy pay disparities, said Mariann Madden, North America pay equity co-lead at WTW, formerly Willis Towers Watson.

"Sometimes this can bubble up to a class-action lawsuit or it can be just one employee," she said, "but even one employee can potentially make their way all the way to the Supreme Court and then have a law named after them, like Lilly Ledbetter."

Ewald's five-year case ended with a federal judge awarding more than $270,000 for lost wages and emotional distress, plus nearly $2 million in legal fees and costs. The case settled shortly after that award by the court.

It was the only case tried under the EPA in 2014, and afterward, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs "rolled out its efforts to take a hard stance and go after employers for not paying folks equitably," said Sheila Engelmeier, Ewald's attorney.

"There's an argument to be made that before Ellen's case, nobody was talking about the EPA, and in the years post, they were," Engelmeier said. "And she should get some credit for that."

Still, although Ewald said she doesn't regret her lawsuit, it can be hard to tell whether it made a difference.

"It's not that my case should have changed the world. It was more that [it] should have been a piece in a bigger movement that seems to never take off," she said. "It just never gets better, and I don't understand."