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Men vs. Women: The Wage Gap: ND has 1 of the nation's largest pay divisions

Equal Pay Day, which was celebrated Tuesday, has come and gone, and American women are no closer to having the same paycheck as men. But some say women have themselves to blame.

"Women don't necessarily negotiate a higher salary, so they start lower," said Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women's Network.

Because that base wage or initial offering is also the starting point for raises and salaries from future employers, women who start at a low wage stay at a low wage, she said.

No amount of legislation, including the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the currently debated Paycheck Fairness Act, will help women if they don't help themselves.

"It's not just social choices or stepping out of the workforce to care for children," Stromme said. "What it is is women start at a lower wage. Employers -- if you're not going to negotiate -- they're not going to automatically say, 'Oh, this guy asked for more, you should ask for more.'"

North Dakota has one of the largest wage gaps -- women, on average, make 73 percent of what men make. Only West Virginia, Utah, Louisiana and Wyoming are lower, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, from the 2011 American Communities Survey, compiled by the American Association of University Women.

Women across the United States, on average, earn 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts makes.

"The largest impact is that starting salary and what women ask for upfront," Stromme said.

Job Service North Dakota, which keeps track of wage data by county, industry and other demographics, does not track data by gender, said Michael Ziesch, Labor Market Information co-manager for the agency.

"We haven't looked at the equity issue," he said. "We don't do it for a couple of reasons. For one, it's a pretty sensitive topic and we're more into vanilla stuff than trying to get something going. We don't take a stand on stuff like that, we just compile the data and release it. It's outside of the scope of what our cooperative agreement pays for."

In 2002 and again in 2011, Job Service put out its "Balancing Act" report, a look at how modern North Dakota women juggle family and career.

More than 78 percent of North Dakota families with children under 18 in 2009 had both the husband and wife in the workforce, according to Balancing Act 2011. This includes full- and part-time workers. About 20 percent of families had a full-time stay-at-home parent, 3 percent were stay-at-home dads and 17 percent had stay-at-home moms. Less than 2 percent of families had no parents in the workforce.

Women make up a larger portion of the part-time workforce, according to Balancing Act 2011. In 2009, 40 percent of North Dakota women in the workforce worked part time, compared to 21.5 percent of men. When asked why they worked part time, both men and women cited school, retirement and other reasons. A majority of women said it was because of family or personal obligations, while very few men cited this reason. A small portion of women said it was because of child care concerns, while no men chose that reason.

Career choice can play a small role in the wage gap, but even in science, technology, engineering and math careers there is a gap between the pay for men and women.

"That field in general needs workers, so it's a great opportunity to give those who are at lower wages a path," Stromme said.

Women in STEM occupations made about 86 percent of what men made in the U.S. in 2009, according to Balancing Act 2011.

Women who feel they are being treated unfairly can file a complaint with the North Dakota Department of Labor.

"Often we'll ask an employer for comparable statistics, too, to help us determine whether they have discriminated against someone based on their sex," said Tony Weiler, North Dakota Commissioner of Labor.

Even with the population boom, there has not been an increase in sex-based wage claims with his department, but Weiler suspects its coming.

"We just haven't seen a spike in the employment discrimination area," he said. "I think it's coming, but we just haven't seen it yet."

The number spiked at 129 in the 2001-03 biennium, but has stayed steady at around 100 closed claims per biennium over the past decade. As of the end of 2012, there have been 72 sex-based claims this biennium, which ends with June.

But many company policies make it difficult for women to file claims in the first place, Stromme said.

"Part of the problem is that lack of -- you should never be able to be terminated simply because you want to know what your co-workers make," Stromme said. "And knowing is the only way you'll be able to discover if there's a gap."

The best thing women can do is ask for what they're worth, or even more, when they are offered jobs.

"It's unlikely that they'll pull a job offer if you start a negotiation," Stromme said. "They expect a negotiation and they're prepared for it. They're not offering you the most that they're willing to give."

Online: The Balancing Act:

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
(701) 456-1206