The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On equal pay, D.C. comes out on top

When it comes to equal pay for equal work, why does Washington D.C. consistently rank at the top? And for that matter, why does Wyoming rank dead last?

This is the question you’re likely to ask when you glance at the National Women’s Law Center’s state-by-state analysis of Census Bureau statistics on how women fare compared to men when it comes to compensation.

Now, at this point, you might be asking yourself, "What is Equal Pay Day anyway?"

Equal Pay Day is an annual marker advocacy groups devised a couple of decades ago to highlight the wage gap between men and women. It falls roughly when a woman will earn enough money to match what a comparable man made the following year, given that women earn on average 77 cents for every dollar men make nationwide.

It's now the sort of day where President Obama issues an annual proclamation saying the nation's journey toward equality "will not be complete until our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and our daughters are treated equally in the workplace and always see an honest day's work rewarded with honest wages."

Obama also called for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it more costly for employers to discriminate on the basis of gender. That measure has almost passed Congress a couple of times but keeps coming up short in the Senate, and faces an uphill battle this year.

Back to the key question, however: Why do women in D.C. get 90.4 cents compared to each dollar their male counterparts earn, compared to the 66.6 cents earned by women in Wyoming?

Fatima Goss-Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center, said it reflects the outsized role the federal government plays in Washington's labor market. (Maryland, for what it's worth, occupies the nation's number-three spot at 86 cents, just behind Vermont.)

"There's more transparency in wages," said Goss-Graves, whose advocacy group is non-partisan. "There are pay scales that are clear, and there are no penalties for talking about what people make."

Goss-Graves said it is harder to explain the discrepancy between men and women in Wyoming, though she said contributors likely include the fact that women and men segregate into different occupations and women are punished professionally for their larger responsibility for care-giving.

Conservatives have challenged this sort of analysis: James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, and Emily Goff, the group's research associate, have written that these statistics are misleading because they don't adequately capture the extent to which women seek out jobs with more flexible schedules and are more likely to stay home with their children.

"Different choices—not discrimination—account for different employment and wage outcomes," they write.

And while D.C. has plenty to crow about, it turns out the city fares poorly when African-American and Hispanic women are compared to their white male counterparts. In those categories, the District ranks 49th in the nation.