No matter how you measure it, there is a gender pay gap, and it’s not going away any time soon.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute shows the persistence of the gender pay gap, with union membership as a way to achieve greater equality.

Depending on how and what you measure, researchers will reach different numbers for the gender pay gap, says a report from the Economic Policy Institute. It’s just a matter of how much, depending on the criteria used, like education, age or occupation. 

“The gender wage gap is sizeable no matter how it’s measured,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist and co-author of the report. “The gender wage gap is ingrained in our economy and it cannot be solved by simply asking women to make different choices.”

A bright spot in the report involved union membership. Not only do women in unions make more than their nonunion counterparts, they experience a smaller gender pay gap. Women with the benefit of a collective bargaining agreement make 89 percent of what their male counterparts do, compared to 82 percent for women who aren’t covered. 

As far as that remaining 11 percent, Jessica Schieder, a research assistant and report co-author, suggests that it may be explained by forces that can’t be addressed in a contract. If a woman bears the majority of childcare or elder care, for example, she may work fewer hours and therefore earn less. 

“If you don’t work you don’t get paid,” said Kenell Broomstein, a journeyman wireman and member of Boston Local 103. “I’m a single mother so if I have to miss work for my kid, I miss out. It can be hard to manage.”

Erin Sullivan, a journeyman wireman and member of New York Local 3, says she had to care for her dying mother while still working.

“It’s very real,” said Sullivan who is also a shop steward and Third District representative for the IBEW women’s committee. “In construction, there are times when you have to go on unemployment – and thank God for the union benefits that help. But there’s no paid time off for caring for family members, except the FMLA. But that only protects your job, not your pay.” 

The FMLA is the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal law that guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off without losing your job.

Shieder also said union women aren’t evenly distributed among job classifications. Higher paid manufacturing jobs are still predominantly men’s jobs. And as the report noted, jobs that are considered women’s work tend to be valued less than jobs held primarily by men. 

Alice Phillips, business manager of Tacoma, Wash., Local 483 has seen it contract negotiations. Male-dominated classifications will get a 1.5-2 percent raise, compared to only 1 percent for female-dominated jobs, she said.

“Does an electrician’s dollar have more value than a clerical worker’s? Management treats clerical staff like they’re a dime a dozen,” Phillips said.

Despite the obstacles, a union job in the building trades still provides a lot of opportunity and a rewarding career.  

“I love it,” Sullivan said. “There’s nothing else I would rather do.”

Beyond Choice

The report looked at occupational choice as a factor in the pay gap. While men are still more likely to choose science and engineering-related careers than women, even within these occupations, a gap persists. 

“Gender discrimination doesn’t happen only in the pay-setting practices of employers … It can happen at every stage of a woman’s life, from steering her away from science and technology education to shouldering her with home responsibilities that impede her capacity to work the long hours of demanding professions,” the report stated. 

Local 103 was part of a trade conference for high school girls in March to encourage their participation. Events like these can be an important step for recruiting. 

“We need to start young. And we need more women in leadership, including women of color,” Broomstein said. “It’s sets an example. Girls will see that and think ‘if she did it, I can do it.’”

Male-dominated workplaces can be hostile to women, but workplace attitudes are trending toward inclusion, Phillips said.

“More and more and more we’re moving toward greater acceptance,” Phillips said. “And when we speak up, we’ll be louder than them.”

Broomstein, Phillips and Sullivan noted that the trades can cultivate these inclusive attitudes, from personal leadership to more formal programs. 

“Foremen are key,” Phillips said. “They need to enforce the idea of what is acceptable and that we’re all here to get the job done.”    

Local 3 started a diversity training that is mandatory for anyone in supervision, Sullivan said. She also noted the IBEW women’s committee and Code of Excellence as tools to improve relationships.

“The Code of Excellence offers a better understanding of how to behave and relate to one another,” Sullivan said. “It’s about education.”

Considering that the average woman loses $530,000 over the course of her lifetime because of the gender pay gap, it’s an issue worth addressing. 

“I tell my male co-workers how they pay the same tuition for their daughter as their son, but their daughter is making 15 percent less,” Sullivan said. “’Are you ok with that?’ The answer is always no.”