Legislators target gender pay gaps

A new bill aims to close pay and representation gaps in the workplace.

Legislators target gender pay gaps

Mitchell Yurkowitz

Legislators are mulling proposals this session that aim to reduce gender segregation in the workplace by promoting nontraditional occupations and alleviating payment disparities between men and women.

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, is sponsoring a bill that appropriates $500,000 for job development programs in industries where women make up less than a quarter of the workforce and $250,000 to promote nontraditional apprenticeships.

“Gender stereotypes about the jobs that men and women can and should do — and women’s lack of knowledge about these types of careers — are significant obstacles to increasing their representation in these fields,” said Debra Fitzpatrick, director for the Center on Women and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

In 2012, the average median earnings for women working full time was about 80 percent compared to men in Minnesota, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The large pay gap is partly due to a concentration of women in certain fields, according to a 2014 Humphrey School report, “Status of Women and Girls in Minnesota.”

Technical fields with two-year programs, such as plumbing and construction, lack women. This adds to the problem because they train for high-wage jobs, Franzen said. Women are also sometimes paid less for working the same jobs as men, she said.

Five states have passed similar bills to reduce wage gaps in the last two years.

Women are often perceived as caregivers and are expected to hold parenting responsibilities, Fitzpatrick said, which can limit access to promotions and high-paying jobs.

The bill is a part of a larger proposal that targets gender disparities. The Women’s Economic Security Act includes state funding to help support women-owned businesses, requires additional accommodations for pregnant and nursing women and guarantees unemployment benefits for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

A Senate committee heard the bill Wednesday and passed it to the Finance Committee.

If approved, the bill would increase the state’s pregnancy and parenting leave from six to 12 weeks and require employers to provide pregnant women with additional seats, restroom breaks and guidelines to limit heavy lifting.

Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, testified at a committee meeting earlier this month, saying that women should not be singled out in legislation to address workplace disparities.

Leah Olm, a women’s advocate from WomenVenture, a nonprofit that works to promote businesses owned by women, testified at a different meeting Thursday in support of the bill.

She said her friend was threatened with termination after drawing attention to the wage differences between men and women at her company.

“That was when I realized how little I was worth to the world as a woman,” Olm said.