States with largest and smallest gender pay gap

It's Equal Pay Day, which is not a celebration of the idea that men and women should be paid the same wage for the same work. Rather, April 2 is the day in the U.S. when women catch up to what men typically earned the previous year; the date varies in other countries.

Women make about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes in the United States, according to U.S. Census data crunched by the American Association of University Women. And while the wage gap is slowly closing, women – even those with university and professional degrees – still face wage discrimination and other obstacles to achieving pay equity, experts say.

And while the gender pay gap sometimes has been attributed to women's own choices – such as selection of a lower-paid, female-dominant profession, or the decision to take time off to care for children – those factors do not account for the disparity, says Kim Churches, AAUW's chief executive officer. 

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For example, women are paid less than men even a year out of college, she notes. For example, female business majors, according to an AAUW research paper, earned $38,000 a year after graduation, compared to $45,000 for men. And while it's often assumed that education is the best way to close the gap, that, too, isn't a guarantee of equality, Churches says.

The pay gap tends to be narrower for minimum-wage and service jobs, such as food service, Churches says. But for accountants, auditors, physicians and surgeons, women experience the biggest pay gap, she says. "The gap begins right after you finish your training," she says.

The pay gap varies from state to state, too – often because of those individual states' economies as well as the laws those states have in place to discourage and punish wage discrimination, says Lydia Frank, a vice president at PayScale, a compensation data and software company.

"States whose primary industries tend to be male-dominated ones have wider pay gaps," Frank says. "We also see that there's a clear distinction between states that have put equal pay legislation and other policies that are supportive of women into place and those that have not."

The answer, experts say, is partly in laws and regulations. Federal law bans wage discrimination based on sex (and many states have their own laws as well). But both the federal government and states can go further, Churches says, such as by banning questions about salary history.

When prospective employers base workers' wages on what they were paid in their last job, it compounds the pay gap women experience at the beginning of their work lives, she notes. The Paycheck Fairness Act, approved by the House of Representatives last Wednesday, includes such a provision.

Laws and workplace policies, too, need to reflect the new labor market, Churches says. A Pew Research Center study from 2013 found that in a record 40 percent of households with children under 18, women were the primary breadwinners.

"We need to change our paradigms for how we think about the workplace," with the standard no longer being the "sepia-toned photos where men were the financial provider," Churches says. Both mothers and fathers, for example, should be offered and should use parental leave at work, she notes, so it's no longer seen as some kind of gift to women. "These aren't 'women's rights,'" Churches says, but a benefit for families overall.

Here are the top five states with the narrowest gender pay gaps:

1. CALIFORNIA
California has the narrowest gender pay gap in the country, with women making more than 89 cents ($46,783 median) for a man's dollar ($52,487). The Golden State has extensive laws to make that happen, including equal pay laws than ban retribution for filing a wage discrimination claim or for discussing salaries with co-workers. California also has a state advisory board on pay equity.

2. NEW YORK
Women earn 88 cents ($48,901) to the male dollar ($55,636) in New York, a state which has passed laws in recent years to punish and prevent wage discrimination. The Empire State now bans state agencies from asking job candidates about their salary histories or basing their pay on prior salary. State contractors must disclose the race, ethnicity and gender of their employees.

3. FLORIDA
Women make a median income of $36,746 in the Sunshine State, 87 cents to the dollar of the $42,261 median men earn. More than 1 million Florida households are headed by women.

4. DELAWARE
The First State is fifth in the nation among states with the narrowest gender pay gaps, with women earning 86 cents ($47,052) on the median male dollar ($54,657). Delaware recently passed a law banning employers from asking about a job candidate's job history.

5. VERMONT
Women earn 86 cents ($47,052) on the dollar, compared to men (who have median earnings of $48,924) in Vermont. The state has its own equal pay law, which also bans employers from prohibiting workers from sharing their salary information.

And the bottom five:

50. LOUISIANA
Women in the Bayou State get paid an average of 69 percent of what men make. State laws on pay equity are weak, and the state's demographics may also be in play. Minority women are hit even harder by the gender pay gap, with African-American women earning just 61 cents for every dollar white men earn, according to AAUW's analyses. Louisiana's workforce is 35 percent minority.

49. UTAH
Women earn a median 71 cents for every dollar a man makes in the Beehive State. Why? It could be motherhood: Utah has one of the highest fertility rates in the nation, and studies show that women who take time off to raise children make less money. Four in 10 Utah women work part time – the highest percentage of any state in the country.

48. INDIANA
Hoosier women earn 73 cents (a median yearly salary of $37,167) for every dollar earned by a man ($50,782). The Indiana Institute for Working Families finds that the disparity translates, too, into a wealth gap between the genders, since women are less able to save, invest and get credit. African-American and Latina women in Indiana experience greater gender pay gaps than white women.

47. ALABAMA
Female workers in Alabama make a median annual income of $35,414 – a bit more than 73 cents for every dollar made by men, who earn $48,199. And women in Alabama can't count on the law to help them close the gap: The state is one of just two in the nation (with Mississippi) that has passed noneof the 24 types of protections and legal redress AAUW recommends to promote pay equity.

46. WEST VIRGINIA
Mountain State women earn $35,078 a year – 74 cents to every dollar a man makes there ($47.425). That adds up to a total of $3.5 billion yearly,according to AAUW. This amount would pay for two years of food for a family, or two years' tuition and fees at a public university.

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