Women in Montana earn 71.5 cents for every dollar earned by male counterparts, according to a survey released last week by the U.S. Census. That translates to a wage difference of more than $10,000 annually and places Montana among the states with the largest income discrepancies, along with Louisiana, West Virginia and Utah.
"People don't think that this could possibly be the case today," says Beth Hubble, co-chair of the University of Montana's Department of Women's and Gender Studies. "People don't believe that it's still that much of a problem, and it is."
Both nationally and in Montana women have consistently earned less than men. Hubble attributes the difference, in part, to women choosing to work in less lucrative arenas than their male counterparts. For example, female attorneys more frequently opt for family law, while men migrate in greater numbers toward business litigation. But there's more to the income gap than career choice.
"Discrimination—our best estimate is that this accounts for about 20 percent of the gap," says Ariane Hegewisch of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Basically, women have to be better educated than men to get the same pay."
Hegewisch counts a number of high-profile examples of alleged discrimination, including a case implicating Wal-Mart. More than a million of the retailer's current and former employees claim the company preferentially promoted men, while paying them more. Last month, Wal-Mart asked the Supreme Court to toss out the suit.
Hegewisch says it's tough to prove cases like Wal-Mart's, largely because employers are not obligated to release wage information. But a bill now working its way through Congress could change that. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which is slated for debate next month, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to require employers to submit pay information, broken down by gender, to the federal government. The information would aid agencies charged with enforcing federal pay discrimination prohibitions.
Opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act say the legislation would violate privacy laws and open the door to frivolous lawsuits. They also argue women earn less money because they choose family-friendly benefits, like a flexible schedule, in exchange for lower wages.
Hegewisch doesn't buy it.
"We're just a very far place from choice on these issues," she says.