It’s a fact that women in Montana, as elsewhere in the nation, hold fewer leadership positions than men, fill more lower-paying jobs and earn less money for the same work.
The reasons for this are complex, varied and longstanding. And while some progress has been made — the number of women-owned businesses has grown exponentially over the past two decades, for instance — it’s painfully clear that much more could be done.
So the University of Montana’s recent announcement that it is launching a new initiative to support women should be hailed as an important step toward closing the opportunity and achievement gaps between men and women. We look to our institutions of higher learning to thoroughly research society’s most difficult problems, evaluate potential solutions and lead the way forward through effective policy. UM’s acknowledgement of the unique challenges facing women in the workforce and its pledge to help overcome those hurdles therefore holds a lot of promise, not just for Missoula but for all of Montana.
And as the nation recalls the history behind the 19th Amendment in advance of its centennial anniversary, it’s also an opportune time for the university to closely examine its own obstacles and come up with a focused, concrete plan of action to eliminate them.
The university’s new initiative is called S.E.A. Change, and it is aimed at creating a campus environment that is “safe” for women, that “empowers” women and that “accelerates” them in their careers. Importantly, it includes a commitment to advancing societal change “toward equity for all,” according to the university’s announcement.
Drawing attention toward gender equity as a shared value is a critical starting point. Next, the university plans to draw more attention toward efforts already underway on campus, and also invite the campus community to share ideas for crafting specific goals.
As UM Chief of Staff Kelly Webster noted, "We fully recognize that working toward equity for all means persistent effort, and we recognize that there is a lot more work to do. We are not afraid of that work and want to use this effort as a chance to understand what that work looks like and what we need to do to get it done."
As part of this important work, the university must start to untangle the reasons why a woman who is a full professor earns less than a man in the same position. Chronicle of Higher Education data shows that a female professor at UM is paid an average of $79,275 while a male professor is paid $83,146 — a difference of nearly 5%.
And unfortunately, the gap appears to be widening. As the Missoulian recently reported in a news story announcing the S.E.A. Change Initiative, in 2007, male professors received an average of $2,492 more than their female counterparts. Ten years later, they received $3,871 more.
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Compounding the problem, while 71% of staff were women, only 34% of full professors were women at last count. Overall, men tend to hold more of the higher-wage positions while women hold more of the lower-paying jobs.
This gap is not unique to UM, and in fact, it’s even worse off-campus. Last month, the Women’s Foundation of Montana noted that women who hold down full-time work make only 78% of men’s wages – which is actually progress, because in 2013, women made only 73% of men’s wages. That dismal number put Montana in 29th place on a national scale of pay equity and prompted Gov. Steve Bullock to establish an Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force.
The task force is comprised of state government officials, private business representatives and other key leaders in the state — including UM President Seth Bodnar. Its mission is to share expert advice on how to ensure pay equity, and to that end its website (equalpay.mt.gov) offers information on wage negotiation for employees and best practices for employers, among other helpful resources.
Members of the task force were among those marking this year’s National Equal Pay Day on April 2, the date by which the average women has earned as much income as the average man did just last year. But on the same day they gathered to pay homage to a century of equal pay laws in Montana, a legislative committee killed one of the task force’s key recommendations.
House Bill 547, sponsored by Livingston Rep. Laurie Bishop, proposed to level the playing field for women by prohibiting employers from requiring job applicants to disclose their previous salary, and allow employees to discuss their wages with coworkers without fear of reprisal.
The Paycheck Transparency Act, as it was initially called, withstood torturous amendments designed to eliminate any obligations on employers before it squeaked through the House on a 52-47 vote. The Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee then tabled it. Perhaps it matters that this 10-member committee includes only three women legislators, and is chaired by a man: Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls.
It’s also worth noting that a previous bill to establish a Montana Pay Equity Act, introduced by Missoula Sen. Sue Malek in the 2017 legislative session, was also tabled in the same committee. But that year, the committee included only one female legislator: Sen. Dee Brown of Hungry Horse.
Montana law has required employers to provide equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex, for 100 years. At the time, the law was both groundbreaking and in step with burgeoning efforts to advance women’s rights across the nation. Montanans take pride in our state’s role in helping to ratify the 19th Amendment, which recognized the right to vote regardless of sex, with its vote on Aug. 2, 1919. The amendment was certified one year later, on Aug. 20, 1920, and on Nov. 2, 1920, more than 8 million American women voted for the first time.
Montanans can proudly celebrate our state’s role in this historic milestone. But as we do so, we must not lose sight of the important work that remains. Montana clearly has a ways to go toward achieving full equality between the sexes. UM should be applauded for stepping up, encouraged to make measurable improvements — and joined in its efforts by public, private and nonprofit leaders throughout the state.