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Road to Equality Tour kicks off in Duluth; Women's Foundation highlights state wage disparities

DULUTH – While Minnesota is ahead of the national average when it comes to issues dealing with women in the workplace, including the wage gap, stark disparities still exist in the state, particularly in Duluth.

The median income for women in Duluth is 75 percent that of men, compared to 79 percent statewide, according to the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. The foundation presented its findings Tuesday at the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth as part of its Road to Equality Tour across Minnesota.

Debra Fitzpatrick, director of the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, which conducts research for the organization, said the larger wage gap in northeast Minnesota is caused by the prevalence of male-dominated industries in the region.

According to the report, which includes census information and figures gathered by other government agencies and nonprofits, 3 percent of construction laborers in Minnesota are women, compared to just 1 percent in Duluth.

Fitzpatrick said the gender-based segregation that exists in the workforce prevents women from holding higher-level jobs and obtaining promotions. Fitzpatrick also identified pay secrecy exercised by some contractors, and the notion that women are less career-oriented than men, as contributors to the wage gap.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature targeted the wage gap when Dayton signed the Women’s Economic Security Act into law on May 11.

The act, which takes effect Aug. 1, increases the ceiling for unpaid pregnancy and parenting leave from six to 12 weeks, and requires businesses with more than 50 employees and more than $500,000 in state contracts to certify that men and women receive equal compensation for similar work.

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who sat in on Tuesday’s presentation and participated in a focus group, said there is “almost a penalty” in the current workforce for women or men who take leave to care for a child or relative.

“That’s something that has to be corrected,” Rubin said.

When the act was being considered by the Legislature, the foundation presented its findings to lawmakers and lobbied for the act to be passed.

“It’s a national model for addressing the 20 percent pay gap from a variety of perspectives,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re hopeful we’re going to make some progress.”

Fitzpatrick said closing the wage gap has taken on added importance because the number of working mothers who are the primary earner for their family is increasing, according to the foundation’s report.

In northeast Minnesota, 52 percent of working mothers are the primary earner for their family. The region is the only one listed on the report outside of the Twin Cities metro area, where the rate is more than 50 percent. The statewide rate is 49 percent.

The wage gap and the trend of women as primary earners are greater when it comes to racial minorities.

For white mothers, the wage gap is 20 percent, compared to 38 percent for both African American and American Indian mothers. White women are the primary earner for their family at a rate of 46 percent, compared to 77 percent for African American women and 80 percent for American Indian women.

“When you combine racism and sexism,” Fitzpatrick said, “women of color have an extra burden to overcome in terms of getting into different types of jobs.”

To reverse negative trends among women and minority women, Fitzpatrick said systematic changes have to be made to the workforce. Fitzpatrick said the current workforce lags behind today’s families, specifically when it comes to the wage gap and the opportunity for workers to take paid leave.

“We have to get serious about changing our institutions to match our lives in terms of work-life balance,” Fitzpatrick said. “(There is) a new normal in our family lives that isn’t matched in our workplace.”

Duluth was the first stop in the foundation’s seven-city tour, which ends June 24. The tour is scheduled to visit Grand Rapids, Rochester, Twin Cities, Mankato, Willmar and Moorhead.