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What Miss Utah Should've Said About the Pay Gap

The Miss USA contestant took heat over her answer about why women earn less than men. Here’s what I wish I’d heard from her.

posted by Kerry Hannon, June 20, 2013 More by this author

Miss Utah 2013 Marissa Powell

Kerry Hannon has spent more than 25 years covering personal finance for Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.


Miss Utah 2013 Marissa Powell
Miss Utah USA 2013 Marissa Powell
Photo by Georgina Vaughan, courtesy MissUtahUSA.com
By now, you’ve probably heard or seen the garbled answer Miss Utah, Marissa Powell, gave to this question during Sunday’s the Miss USA pageant:
 
A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners yet they continue to earn less than men. What does this say about society?
 
Powell’s response (which you can watch on YouTube):
 
I think we can relate this back to education ... and how we are continuing to try to strive ... to figure out how to create jobs right now. That is the biggest problem. I think especially the men are seen as the leaders of this and so we need to figure out how to create education better so that we can solve this problem.
 
Don't Be So Hard on Miss Utah

She clearly hadn’t thought about this topic in advance and couldn't pull out a plausible response. To cut her a little slack, it’s worth remembering that Powell, who ultimately became the pageant’s third runner-up, is only 21 and has barely entered the workforce. If you’d asked me that question at 21, I wouldn’t have had any wise thoughts on it either.

(MORE: 3 Ways Women Can Get Paid More at Work)
 
Nevertheless, Miss Utah’s rambling and cringe-worthy answer has been burning up the blogosphere and trending on Twitter.
 
My Answer to Miss Utah's Pay-Gap Question

What should she have said, particularly concerning the gender pay gap for my Next Avenue audience, women over 50? With the benefit of a few days’ thought and 30 years of experience, here’s my answer:
 
What the gender wage gap says about our society is that the playing field is not equal in the workplace.
 
Yes, there has been positive change in recent years. But for most women, the pay gap has barely budged: from 59 cents to the man’s dollar in 1975 to today’s 77 cents, on average, for a typical woman working full time, according to a study from the Center for American Progress.
 
And, as I noted earlier in a Next Avenue blog, for women in their 50s and 60s, the pay contrast is especially drastic. The Center for American Progress says that in the last five years before retirement, the annual wage gap between women and men jumps to $14,352. Between the ages of 25 and 29, it’s just $1,702.
 
That’s the stark reality in our society, Miss Utah.
 
Part of the explanation is that many women step out of the workforce to raise families or care for an aging relative and when they step back in, it’s hard to get their pay back to the level it should be.
 
Moreover, women tend to work in industries that pay less than male-dominated fields. I’m thinking about health care, social assistance, real estate, educational services and nonprofits.

(MORE: Dear Harvard Grad School: Here's Why I Didn't Apply)
 
Men Don't Deserve All the Blame

Male managers and institutional norms are typically noted as key factors behind the nation’s gender pay bias. But women also share some of the blame.
 
When just starting out in a career, men are more likely to ask for a raise and for a promotion than women, according to a recent report from Payscale.com.

That pay gap from the get-go plays out over the years in smaller raises and even benefits for women.
 
Payscale says that women who earn more than $100,000 a year are more likely to ask for raises and promotions than men making that much, though.
 
What Sheryl Sandberg Says

I also think women in our society are conditioned to please. Even Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer and the author of Lean In, the best-seller that encourages women to step up at work, concedes she has been guilty of this.
 
In my opinion, women of all ages still wear blinders when it comes to the pay gap.
 
Plenty of women in their 20s are acquiescent about what they’re paid, grateful for a job and reluctant to negotiate raises or ask their male colleagues what they’re paid.
 
Many of the women in their 50s and 60s I work alongside should have more chutzpah by now but they, too, don’t have the courage to negotiate for pay.
 
Women of all ages, I believe, fear being seen as too demanding or difficult.

(MORE: 7 Tips for Breadwinner Wives Feeling the Strain)
 
4 Pieces of Advice for Women

So, Miss Utah and all the other women in America, here are four tips that I think can help you – and ultimately our society – solve the issue of the gender pay gap:
 
1. Do your homework researching salaries. Web sites like Payscale.com, Salary.com and the one from the Economic Research Institute can show you what a position typically pays where you live.
 
If you’ll be interviewing for a job at a nonprofit, check out the organization’s latest online tax filing (Form 990) to see what its employees and executives earn.
 
As the Forbes blog post “Why Women Must Ask,” by Professor Margaret A. Neale of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, advises, women must do a better job of preparing for a job interview question about salary or for a salary negotiation and do the necessary research to determine how much money they want to earn and why.
 
2. Consult the men in your field. Build up the courage to ask male friends what they make if they’re in similar positions at a company where you’re applying for work or are in your field.
 
Tap into your professional network, like LinkedIn connections, to glean this type of information, too.
 
3. Don’t be afraid to push for more money. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Your boss or prospective employer can say no.
 
4. Be more open to taking career risks. Don't avoid assignments that push you out of your comfort zone. Pursue new challenges on the job, especially when you’re over 50 and your employer may be harboring doubts about your energy and enthusiasm.
 
The better job you do, the more you’re apt to earn.
 
I know, my response would never have gone viral, the way Miss Utah’s did. And it probably wouldn’t have rewarded her with the Miss USA crown. But she would have been a winner to me.
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