New data shows smaller wage gap here, but reason is complex

Ellen Forcier, an employment consultant at the Hendersonville JobLink Career Center, speaks with Jordan Berger, right, who is looking for health care work. An about-to-be-released study shows that a wage gap between men and women still exists in North Carolina, though the divide is narrower in portions of Western North Carolina. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

With endless talk of fiscal cliffs and jobless numbers, it’s easy to forgive the average North Carolinian if they’re tired of talking about the economy. But for the many women of the state, the economic story of 2012 had its origin not in the 112th Congress, but in that chestnut of feminism: Equal pay for equal work.

Some may assume that the issue is antiquated, one solved decades ago. But a soon-to-be-released study will show that wage equality is still not a reality for women in the state, even as they outpace men in employment and education.

“When we look at North Carolina and all of the 11 sub-regions, and look at women and men who work full time year-round, women still earn less than men,” said Cynthia Hess, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Women make, on average, $33,000 per year in North Carolina, while men make $40,000, according to the forthcoming “Status of Women” report Hess created on the state. The report should be published in March.

Despite the pay differences, the numbers, which compare women workers from 2008-2010 to those in 1996, show some areas of progress for North Carolina women.

“As a whole, there are bright spots,” Hess said. “There’s an increase of employed women who are working in managerial occupations — from 26 percent to 40 percent.”

And though there is a clear wage gap statewide, Hess said the wage gap in Western North Carolina is narrower than in other regions.

“If you look at Western North Carolina, (and in) Asheville in particular, women are doing fairly well,” Hess said.  “Forty-five percent of women work in managerial occupations (in Buncombe County) compared to 40 percent in the state.”

In Asheville, the number of women in managerial positions is 39 percent, she said.

Women in Asheville earn 85 cents to a man’s dollar in this part of the state compared to the 83 cents that is the average for women across the state. And, she added, Asheville women earn 6 cents more to the dollar than their national counterparts.

But Asheville’s relatively narrow wage gap doesn’t tell the whole story.

Hess explained that when a wage gap in a state is smaller than the country’s, it can mean two things. Women are doing well or as well as men. Or, it can mean that the state as a whole is not doing well, thus both men and women are earning less.

Hess said the last explanation is likely the case in WNC.

Briles Johnson, the director of The Women’s Business Center of North Carolina at the NC Institute of Minority Economic Development, said women are doing well in North Carolina, especially in certain sectors.

“We have seen a growth throughout the entire state, with women opening businesses and being the majority owner,” said Johnson, whose organization helps women start businesses, but does not track wage gaps in the state.

She points to the State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN, which tracks women-owned businesses across the country for evidence. According to AmEx, North Carolina was the third fastest-growing sate for women-owned businesses in the last 15 years.

That rise, said Johnson, can be seen on the ground, with more women starting businesses as self-employed consultants, event planners and online entrepreneurs, especially since the economic downturn in 2007.

Johnson said that in the western part of the state, professional women are drawn to financial centers like Charlotte.

Hess agreed, saying that cities such as Asheville and Charlotte draw educated women to the region.

“One-third of the women in these cities have a bachelor’s degree,” said Hess. “In that regard, women are doing well.”

Nyda Bittmann-Neville, the marketing and communication director for Asheville Savings Bank, said Asheville is a distinctively progressive city for women-owned businesses.

“This is a very advanced area for women business leaders,” Bittmann-Neville said. “Our CEO is a woman, the chancellor of UNCA is a woman, and many women hold high-ranking positions at Mission Health.”

Bittmann-Nelville could not say if more women have been applying for small business loans at the bank, but she did say women are seeking business loans twice as often as men, which is a national trend that ASB patrons seem to follow.

But progressive cities like Asheville and Charlotte are not necessarily representative of the region as a whole.

According to Todd Collins, Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute director, wage gap or wage parity issues are difficult to fix through legal systems.

Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and more recently, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, make equal pay a constitutional right, few women are successful in litigating against employers who may pay them less than their male counterparts

“A plaintiff has to prove that the employer has a long pattern of wage discrimination,” said Collins.

Employers can more easily argue that the plaintiff was paid a lower wage because of a different factor than their gender. Collins said large corporations, or industries, can be taken to court in class action lawsuits when a group of women sue them together, but these cases frequently end in settlements.

“When they reach a settlement, then there’s no legal precedent,” Collins said. “And it stays out of the press.”

Besides, women in WNC, Collins said, may decide that any job — even one with unequal pay — is better than nothing.

“In this part of the state, low- and middle-income earners are not going to turn down work in this economy,” Collins said. “And there’s a lack of knowledge about what their value is.”

 Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify geographic parameters of the data.

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Stephanie Soucheray is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at

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