Economist says people people believe the problem has been fixed, despite evidence.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The gender wage gap continues, according to a local economist, despite persistent belief that the issue has been resolved.There's a common perception that the gender wage gap — the fact that women make less than men in comparable jobs — is a thing of the past or is rapidly diminishing.

But a new study by the Washington County Workforce Analyst says that's an illusion. "Women still make less money than men," Emily Starbuck said. "That hasn't changed."

Starbuck works for the Oregon Employment Department but studies Washington County's economy. She released a report called "Breaking the Mold: Nontraditional Jobs for Women" in which she said the decades-long wage gap persists, even when weighing in such factors as full- vs. part-time work, or levels of education.

But one factor that might alter the gap: Millennials and their workplace values.

The study analyzed traditional or female-dominated occupations (in which women make up 75 percent or more of the total number of people employed) and non-traditional occupations (in which women make up 25 percent or less of the total). Traditional occupations for women include secretaries, teachers and nurses. Non-traditional jobs include laborers, drivers and carpenters.

"On average across all occupational groups ... women working full-time made 79 percent of men's full-time earnings," Starbuck wrote in the report.

One of goals of her report is to address the persistent notion that the gap is shrinking or has disappeared. "There's this belief that if you control for any number of factors, like full-time vs. part-time, the wage gap goes away. But it really doesn't," she said from her office at the Portland Community College Willow Creek Center in Hillsboro.

She said the stats hold true for Washington County, the metro region, Oregon and the nation.

The Oregon Legislature has passed several bills in recent years designed to address wage disparities. State Rep. Margaret Doherty, whose district includes Tigard, sits on the House Committee on Business and Labor. She said the persistent notion that the wage gap has been "solved" likely stems from a misunderstanding of how the law works.

"People think that if you pass legislation, everyone will obey. It doesn't always work like that," she said. "Also, the issue hasn't been covered lately. It's 'out of sight, out of mind.'"

Despite the persistent gap, Doherty said she never experienced it herself. That's because she worked in unions, first for public school districts, then for the Oregon Education Association. Union jobs, she said, are based on such factors as level of education achieved and years of experience, which overcome gender differences.

Starbuck, in her report, cited a 2009 study showing that an increase in gender equity can lead — counterintuitively — to downward pressure on wages. In short, as the number of women in an occupation goes up, the wages tend to go down. And the reverse also is true.

The example she gives: In the 1950s and '60s, computer programming was a women-dominated field and the pay was low. In the 1980s and '90s, men poured into the field and wages skyrocketed.

"As more men enter the field and, if you will, 'legitimize' it, the wages go up," she said.

She predicts the same could happen in the health care field. As automation pushes men out of some medical technology fields, they could move into health care fields such as nurses and at-home care workers. If that were to happen, wages in those fields could rise.

Jessica Howard, campus president for Portland Community College's Southeast Campus, said that trend already is occurring. "We're seeing a significant number of males enter the (nursing and medical imaging fields) because it's such a viable and lucrative career," she said.

Nursing and medical imaging are two of those traditional jobs for women.

Starbuck said the trend likely will continue. "In Oregon, one in five new jobs over the next decade will be in health care," she said.

The study was hampered, Starbuck said, by a lack of data. In both the public and private sectors, long-range data on wages and gender are difficult to come by. She said the state of Oregon is beginning to address that, at least within state government. She said she hopes other sectors will follow suit.

Howard, the PCC campus president, said the wage gap remains firmly in place despite statistics showing that women outperform men in higher education. In the seven schools of the Oregon University System, 52.3 percent of undergraduates are women, and 56.6 percent of graduate students are women. At PCC, 54 percent of students are women, Howard said.

While the gender pay gap remains persistent over decades, Starbuck said one societal change could begin to erode it: Millennials.

That cohort — sociologists sometimes categorize them as people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s — is a growing percentage of the workforce. And they tend to favor jobs that include flexibility, family leave, paid time off and other amenities.

"Changes like that will be positive things for everyone, but women in particular," Starbuck said.

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