Milwaukee’s Gender Pay Gap Narrows but Persists

Women’s median annual earnings remain lower than men’s in Milwaukee County and nationally. This pay gap varies considerably by occupation, and is influenced by gender differences in employment between and within occupational groups. Family obligations, gender discrimination, social forces, and other factors also play important roles. The pay gap has shrunk somewhat in recent years but persists despite women being slightly more likely than men to hold college degrees.

In 2018, women continued to earn less than men for full-time work both locally and nationally. According to Census data, the median annual earnings of women in Milwaukee County ($41,206) was about 85% of the median among men ($48,413). By comparison, women’s median annual earnings were just 76% of men’s in neighboring Waukesha County and 79% of men’s nationally. These figures only include full-time, year-round employees ages 16 and over and are based on where they live rather than where they work.

Women’s earnings are vital not only to the individuals themselves but also to their families, affecting incomes and long-term financial stability. In 2018, both spouses worked full-time in 39% of married couple families with children in Milwaukee County. Meanwhile, single parent families in Milwaukee County were more than three times as likely to be headed by women than men; in 2018, 10.1% of households were families with children headed by single mothers, while only 2.9% were single fathers with children.

Milwaukee County’s smaller gender pay gap appears influenced more by relatively low earnings among men than particularly high earnings among women. The median earnings of Milwaukee County men were almost 8% lower than the median for men nationally, while the median for Milwaukee County women was just 1% lower than the national median for women. Also notable is that despite Waukesha County’s relatively large gender pay gap, the median annual earnings of Waukesha County women ($52,298) far exceed the national median for women ($41,752) and are higher than the median for Milwaukee County men.

Both locally and nationally, the gender pay gap persists despite women outpacing men in educational attainment. In 2018, 31.7% of Milwaukee County women ages 25 and over had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, while the same was true for 29.1% of men. Nationally, a slightly higher percentage of women have completed bachelor’s degrees than men.

National data show the gender pay gap exists across all racial and ethnic groups. Since black, Hispanic/Latinx, and American Indian women have the lowest median earnings overall, closing the gap will be particularly challenging for those populations.

The gender pay gap is persistent but is narrowing slowly over time. In Milwaukee County, women’s median earnings as a percentage of men’s increased from 81% in 2010 to 85% in 2018. (See Figure 1.) The gaps also closed somewhat in Waukesha County (from 70% to 76%) and nationally (from 77% to 79%) during that period.

While the narrowing of the gender pay gap is largely a positive trend, some evidence suggests at least a part of women’s gains is due to lagging earnings among men. According to a national study by the Economic Policy Institute, about 30% of the reduction in the gap between the median hourly wages of men and women since 1979 is due to the decline in men’s inflation-adjusted wages. One possible factor behind men’s declining wages is reduced compensation in the male-dominated skilled trades and manufacturing sector.

In addition, the magnitude of economic upheaval stemming from the COVID-19 crisis suggests the gender pay gap could be affected, though it is too soon to say how. Initial reports suggest women workers have been hit harder by job losses than men – a development that, if it continues, could exacerbate the pay gap.

It is important to note that the gender wage gap varies in size depending on how income is measured, and each way of measuring has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, women are more likely than men to work part-time, so our analysis of data that only includes full-time workers may underestimate the gender pay gap with regard to annual earnings. Another common approach used by Pew Research Center and others includes both full-time and part-time workers and compares hourly wages rather than annual earnings, which captures all workers but typically misses things like annual bonuses and overtime pay that only benefit full-time workers who are more likely to be men.

Women Underrepresented in High Wage Occupations

One key factor behind the gender pay gap is the representation of women by occupation. We analyzed Milwaukee County employment numbers for 23 major occupational groups and found women are highly underrepresented in several high wage occupations and overrepresented in several others that pay lower wages.

For example, women account for nearly 84% of Milwaukee County residents employed in healthcare support occupations and almost 74% of those in office and administrative support occupations, which pay relatively low wages. (See Figure 2.) On the higher end of the pay scale, only 20% of those in architecture and engineering occupations and 21% of those in computer and mathematical occupations are women.

These occupational differences are influenced both by individual choices and by social forces that shape what women (and men) perceive to be appropriate career options. Pay differences by occupation also may themselves be influenced by whether an occupation has been dominated by women versus men, with female-dominated occupations often paying less.

Our analysis found that women’s median earnings are less than men’s in all 23 occupational groups in Milwaukee County, but pay differences vary widely by group. The largest pay gaps are in legal; construction and extraction; and protective service occupations (police, fire, corrections, etc.), where women’s median earnings are less than 70% of men’s. (See Figure 3.)

Women Underrepresented in Top Positions

In many cases, pay differences also reflect women being underrepresented in positions that pay the highest wages within each occupational group. For example, within legal occupations, 87% of judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers and 60% of lawyers and judicial law clerks are male, while 81% of lower-paid legal support workers (paralegals, legal assistants, etc.) are female. (See Figure 4.)

Among higher-paying occupational groups that employ large numbers of women in Milwaukee County, management stands out as having a relatively large gender pay gap, with women’s median earnings only 80% of men’s. One explanation for this is that although women are equally represented in management occupations overall, they account for only 37% of those in top executive positions, which pay the highest salaries.

Several occupational groups with the smallest gender pay gaps employ very few people overall (farming, fishing, and forestry) or are male dominated. For example, women account for less than 6% of those employed in installation, maintenance, and repair occupations, and (as previously noted) only 20% of those in architecture and engineering. Others, like food preparation and serving, pay lower wages and may be more equal, in part, because of the minimum wage floor.

Healthcare practitioner and arts and media occupations are exceptions where women are at least equally represented, pay is relatively high, and women’s earnings are closer to men’s. This is particularly encouraging for the healthcare practitioner group as it involves a much larger number of workers and pays higher wages. While women remain underrepresented as physicians and surgeons, far more women than men are employed as registered nurses, therapists, and health technologists and technicians.

Other Pay Gap Factors

While we did not conduct independent research regarding the various societal factors that may contribute to the gender-based wage gap, a large body of national research suggests there are several contributors.

One is the difference in time women and men spend on caregiving. Reputable national research has found that women are more likely than men to take time away from the workforce to care for children, parents, or other family members, in part because there is more societal pressure on them to do so. Working women also are more likely than men to work part-time and to choose roles that allow for greater flexibility, which reduces their likelihood of choosing certain higher-paying professions and of ascending to the highest positions within many fields.

Income loss tied to caregiving exacerbates the gender pay gap and accumulates throughout the lives of many women. For example, a recent study by Merrill Lynch estimated that a woman who experiences career interruptions to care for children, an aging parent, and her spouse would earn a cumulative $1,055,000 less than a man who remained in the workforce with no interruptions by the time she reaches retirement age. These estimates were based on the 2016 median earnings of women and men who worked full-time.

Another distinct factor that is more difficult to measure is gender discrimination. In a 2017 national survey by Pew Research Center, 25% of women said they had earned less than a man doing the same job, while only 5% of men said they had experienced the same type of discrimination. Women also reported receiving less support from senior leaders than a man in the same position, being passed over for the most important assignments, and being turned down for a job because of their gender at higher rates than men.

National studies also have shown identical resumes may be seen more favorably if a man’s name is on it rather than a woman’s, women are less likely to initiate negotiations for higher compensation than men (particularly with male supervisors), and those who do initiate negotiations may be penalized more often than male employees.

Policy Insights and Conclusion

If current trends continue, the gender pay gap would continue to diminish slowly but to endure well into the future. While increased representation of women in male-dominated occupations and shifting gender expectations may continue to help close the gap to some extent, public and private sector policy changes also may be required.

On the private sector side, for example, the structure of work may need to change to make schedules more flexible and predictable and workers more interchangeable whenever possible. For example, research has shown that the gender pay gap has diminished more quickly in fields like pharmacy, where all workers have come to be viewed as having the same general level of competency as one another and where part-time and flexible schedules have become more common. In many fields, it may be possible to cross-train workers on different tasks and to provide greater schedule flexibility to better accommodate family needs.

On the public policy side, increasing access to quality affordable child care and paid family leave could help to close gender pay gaps. The high cost of child care is prohibitive for many families, and relatively few workers nationally have access to paid family leave. This frequently leaves women (and also men) forced to decide between the needs of their families and their jobs. Expanding access to both child care and paid family leave could help to keep women in the workforce and lessen their lifetime income losses related to caregiving. Normalizing or even incentivizing male partners to take family leave also may be necessary to help level the playing field. These types of reforms could benefit not only women but all workers and the economy as a whole.

The unprecedented economic disruption created by the COVID-19 crisis will impose both new challenges and opportunities for addressing gender pay gaps. National data suggest more women than men have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, which may be playing out in Wisconsin as well. A possible silver lining, however, is that altered work arrangements have become the temporary norm in many (primarily higher-wage) fields, which could open the door for workers in those occupations to access more flexible work schedules that could lead to a decrease in the wage gap over time and allow for improved work-life balance.