Savannah makes it onto a lot of lists these days — Most Romantic Cities, America’s Coziest Cities and Best Place to Party to name a few — but one list it probably didn’t anticipate landing on is cities with the fastest increase in gender pay gap.
A new study from financial analysis website NerdWallet ranks Savannah 11th among cities with fastest increasing gender pay gaps, comparing Census data on men’s income to women’s income in metropolises with populations of 100,000 or more.
“It’s pretty appalling actually,” said Jane Rago, director of gender studies at Armstrong State University.
In 2007, the median male income in Savannah was 110 percent of the female median income, not too far from the national average. But by 2012, that figure had increased sharply, by nearly 20 percentage points, to about 130 percent.
Meanwhile, women’s median income had shrunk by $4,800 from $31,087 to $26,247.
The results look bleak, but that’s not the whole story.
The hours gap
Ben McKay, an economist with the bureau of business research and economic development at Georgia Southern University, looked into more data from the census and found that while Savannah’s women were indeed earning less, they also had cut back their working hours (as did men), from an average of 37 to 35.8 hours.
“It’s difficult to tease out of the census data in all industries for all different job types, but what we can say on this for sure is that women are working just a little bit less than they did before, which is dragging down some of their earning potential,” said McKay.
This gibes with a national trend among women. A Pew Research Center study published this month showed that after decades of decline, the share of mothers staying at home had risen to 29 percent in 2012, up from 23 percent in 1999.
McKay also noted that while the city of Savannah saw sharp increases in wage disparity, metro Savannah, including Bryan, Effingham and Chatham counties, actually saw a slight narrowing of the gap, though not by much.
“The question this brings up for me: Is it a choice on the part of females to opt out of the labor market or take a slower pace, or is it the employers saying, ‘Oh, hey, she will work for a little bit less and a little bit fewer hours than this guy does,’” said McKay.
Rago agreed, adding that many lower paying jobs determine what kind of hours the employee will work.
“Was it their call or was it someone else’s?” said Rago. “In so many of our current jobs, workers are not allowed to work 40 hours because the employer doesn’t want to pay overtime. … A lot of these lower paying jobs dictate your hours.”
According to the census data analyzed by McKay, the percentage of women ages 16 to 65 working 35 or more hours a week in Savannah decreased from 55 percent to 45 percent in that six year period, a 10 point drop. At the same time, the number of women working part-time, 15-34 hours, increased from 14 to 19 percent.
To work or work less?
Some studies have pointed out that women still tend to dominate lower-paying industries such as nursing and teaching, while others highlighted the increasing cost of childcare. In Savannah, add to that mix the prevalence of male-dominated industries such as construction, manufacturing, banking, logistics and military.
“Savannah is very conservative economically and socially as well,” said Rago. “I think it’s a really comfortable and insular world of very traditionally gendered professions.”
Rago said the higher up you go in terms of pay scale, the smaller and more homogenous the group, from banking to military to even politics, where women make up just 19 percent of Congress.
“Look at the booming tourism industry. Who’s doing the middle- and upper-management jobs and who’s doing the domestic work?” said Rago.
While it’s true Savannah has a fair number of male-dominated industries, McKay said, the increase in education for women would still leave some question as to why the pay gap persists.
“If you do have women in fields like education where pay has been frozen over time, they may be working the same hours but they just haven’t seen the increase,” he said. “On the other hand, there are people making choices to re-enter the labor market at the 15-35 part-time status to make ends meet, which may be pulling those numbers down.”
Amy Henderson, a lawyer at Bart, Meyer & Co., said she was fortunate to have had law partners who allowed her more flexibility when she decided to have children without disruption to her career or compensation.
“I cut back with my first child to four days a week, then did five days a week part-time,” said Henderson. “They made me partner when I was part-time.”
She said she had many friends who left the workforce to have kids and upon returning struggled with self-doubt and self-confidence to pick up where they left off.
“I felt like one of the exceptions,” she said. “I have some friends who took time off and came back to the workforce … and I see younger associates struggling with the same decision I made.”
Jillian Schlake-Toson, a creative development coordinator at the Savannah College of Art and Design, is due with her first child, a boy, this summer. She said she has no plans to cut back once the baby arrives.
“I am not cutting down my hours at all, partially out of financial consideration,” said Schlake-Toson. “Also, I just want to work, I’ve had a steady job since I was 14 years old, so the idea of not working is foreign to me.”
She said many daycares only have the option of three days or five days a week, so there’s little leeway. Though her husband will re-arrange his work schedule to stay home one day a week with their son, they still have to pay for five days.
“I want to be able to advance in my career, and I don’t know if I could do that as effectively part-time,” she said.
Rago said many women in Savannah face the tough choice of whether to work because daycare has become so expensive that many women lose money by trying to work and pay for childcare.
She said often there are “unseen codes” in the professional world that favor men, namely being able to work late days and being able to work on the weekend, which are seen as key to career advancement and promotion.
Heads of household
President Obama has made the pay gap one of his pet issues this term, commemorating Equal Pay Day on April 8 by signing executive orders aimed at requiring federal contractors to disclose compensation data to increase transparency on wages for women and minorities.
The orders are an attempt to encourage the private sector to boost compensation for women — and, of course, woo women voters — especially at a time when one in four American households with children under 18 have a mother who is the primary breadwinner for her family.
“There is always concern that when you get into these types of issues they do get over-politicized, but it’s something to be considerate of, because as more females are heads of households, it becomes more of an issue,” said McKay. “You’re going to have to make sure that the pay gap begins to close in like-for-like industries.”
McKay said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were individual cases where women are being paid less than their male counterparts in Savannah, but there is no data from the census or any other agency to support that at this point.
At the same time women are working and earning less, a colleague of Rago’s recently conducted a study that showed Savannah has the highest childhood poverty rate in the state.
It’s a confluence of disturbing trends for an area with a population diverse in terms of race, income and education.
“We’re so quick to put everything on personal responsibility, but that really shuts down a more effective conversation,” said Rago. “Everyone has choices, but some choices are less free will than others, especially in the professional world.”
One of the more interesting results of the NerdWallet study found that Santa Clara, Calif., had the second-highest growth in gender pay gap. Men’s income increased by 27 percent between ’07 and ’12, while women only saw a 2 percent boost. Santa Clara is the center of Silicon Valley, home to a high concentration of tech companies and start-ups run mostly by men, an oddly stubborn proclivity that plays out even in Savannah.
Faith-Anne Kocadag is a computer science major at Armstrong and was one of just a few women who attended a TechFest networking event for IT majors at her university last week.
“I had no interest in computer science prior to studying it, but my father encouraged me to try,” said Kocadag. “I’m glad he did, because I fell in love with it. ...It’s nice knowing that I’ll be working toward a career that I can be passionate about, one that offers some level of job security and that will also pay well.”
Kocadag said after graduating in a few weeks, she hopes to find a job in software development, preferably in Savannah. She believes more women don’t gravitate toward computer science because a lot of people don’t understand what they do.
“In TV and movies, programmers are socially awkward males or hackers with malicious intent,” said Kocadag. “I think without role models, networks and mentors, women are less likely to venture out of their comfort zones. It’s hard to imagine going into a field you know nothing about, especially when you’re different — i.e. not male — from 75 percent of people in the field.”
Rago said this persistent bias of highly gendered jobs and placing higher value on certain professions can lead to economic inequality. She believes pay transparency would go a long way toward shedding light on private sector wage disparities. Just imagine looking at the pay scale for employees of GulfStream and how that could impact the dialogue on gender pay.
“Not only has this (issue) been unresolved since people started talking about it 40 years ago, in places it’s getting worse,” said Rago. “The phrase ‘the feminization of poverty’ is becoming true. We’re seeing the deep generational poverty of women and girls as these economic policies continue to grow.”
WOMEN'S MEDIAN INCOME IN SAVANNAH
IN CHATHAM, BRYAN, AND EFFINGHAM
MEAN USUAL HOURS WORKED
Hours/Total Worked Per Year IN Savannah
MEN'S MEDIAN INCOME IN SAVANNAH
IN CHATHAM, BRYAN, AND EFFINGHAM
MEAN USUAL HOURS WORKED
Worked 35+ Hours/Total Worked Per Year in Savannah
A look at Gender Pay Gaps by city
1) Murfreesboro, Tenn.
2) Centennial, Colo.
3) Lowell, Mass.
4) Sioux Falls, S.D.
5) San Bernardino, Calif.
6) Beaumont, Texas
7) Shreveport, La.
8) Miramar, Fla.
9) Palmdale, Calif.
10) Corona, Calif.
1) Clearwater, Fla.
2) Santa Clara, Calif.
3) Frisco, Texas
4) Davenport, Iowa
5) Boulder, Colo.
6) Laredo, Texas
7) Olathe, Kan.
8) West Palm Beach, Fla.
9) Scottsdale, Ariz.
10) Ann Arbor, Mich.
Source: U.S. Census data analyzed by Bureau of Business Research and Economic Development at Georgia Southern University