The popular online finance resource, WalletHub, published a report this past month stating that Maine is the fourth best place for women to live. The report opens with a rationale: Even as women are increasingly earning undergraduate and graduate degrees, and are pursuing a wide range of careers, discrimination and violence against women continue to persist.
Using data from multiple sources (such as the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Violence Policy Center), the report measured two major categories: “women’s economic and social well-being” and “women’s health-care and safety.” For both categories, multiple metrics are assessed, such as the percentage of women who live below poverty and median earnings for female worker (adjusted for cost of living), and women’s preventive health care.
Mainers should be proud to have earned a relatively high ranking, to be sure. But any survey operates at a level of abstraction, using a tiny subset of a group to represent the whole (1.3 million Mainers and 678,305 women and girls). The on-the-ground facts about women’s lives in any community vary a great deal depending on whom you are asking and where you are looking — not to mention the questions you are asking.
Where WalletHub identifies winner states for women, other organizations expose a bleaker reality. For example, the American Association of University Women used the same data as WalletHub to come to a starkly different conclusion, ranking Maine a C+, below all other New England states. But not a single state aced the test: Massachusetts and Maryland ranked the highest, but they still only earned a B+. The AAUW’s lesson is that there is room for improvement for everyone.
While there are multiple factors to consider when weighing the status of women in Maine, we would like to begin by focusing on a basic fact that appears in reports based on U.S. Census data. Like every other state in the nation, there is a “pay gap” in Maine between what men and women earn annually.
In 2014, women in Maine earned 79 cents for every dollar men earned, which is consistent with the national median. The pay gap is a complex issue with multiple factors. Some of this gap is due to choices many women make — such as working fewer hours than men, pursuing careers that do not pay as well as men’s, or taking time off to care for young children.
But the AAUW report stresses that at least 7 percent of the pay gap is unexplained. Across every education level and job category, from firefighting to computer programming to nursing, men are paid more than women.
A new report from the Maine Development Foundation, forthcoming in April, confirms these national trends persist in Maine as well and have not changed much over the last five years.
This is especially distressing in Maine, a rural state that ranks 29th in the nation and 6th in the New England region for the percentage of women above the poverty level (per Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women). In Maine, 45 percent of families below the poverty level are led by single moms with children under the age of 18, and 93 percent of households include women. These households are losing $10,000 per year (median), or $400,000 in a 40-year working lifetime. That adds up to billions of dollars in lost earnings across the state.
Lost earnings mean lost opportunity for local spending and economic growth. The 2015 Report on the Status of Women & Girls in Maine, prepared by Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, provides a more detailed analysis of issues Maine women face and potential policy solutions to help overcome these issues.
The pay gap is detrimental to Maine women and thus also Maine families. While it is illegal in Maine to discriminate on the basis of sex (or race, physical or mental disability, national origin, sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity or expression), nationwide, the unexplained 7 percent of the wage gap is often not due to direct or intentional discrimination. Much of this gap is instead likely due to a culture that encourages men to be forward about their talents and forthright in their requests for promotions — and that simultaneously labels women who behave similarly as bossy, bitchy or otherwise undesirable.
This means that in discussing women’s livelihood in Maine, we should be discussing the culture of our communities.
Here in Bangor, children see that men and women are doctors, business owners, teachers, school administrators, and city, state and national representatives. In downtown Bangor many businesses are owned by women, and, as Summer Allen, owner of Valentine Footwear, notes, women may even have more opportunities to open a shop than in a larger city like Portland. In many ways, Bangor women are thriving.
But at the same time, we know that parts of Bangor struggle economically. We also know that, on average, our population is older than any other state in the union, and that an aging population creates unique problems for families and often especially for women. But even with these pressing problems, one reason that Maine rated so highly with WalletHub is women’s health care.
Bangor’s Mabel Wadsworth Center offers health services, including abortion, for women in eastern and northern Maine — many of whom struggle economically. Andrea Irwin, executive director for the Mabel Wadsworth Center, stresses just how unique the center is. It is just one of 14 nonprofit, feminist medical centers in the U.S. that depends on private fundraising rather than government funds. Keeping the Mabel Wadsworth center separate from politics has ensured that women get affordable medical care over their entire lifespan.
Whether we decide we are 4 out of 50 or just a “C+,” we can use reports like WalletHub’s to initiate conversation about women’s “economic and social well-being” — and stress that this conversation bears directly on Maine’s health, growth and prosperity.
Elizabeth Neiman is an assistant professor of both English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maine. Sharon Klein is an assistant professor in the school of economics at the University of Maine.