Before Jesse McKinney was old enough to crawl, her mother was preparing her for a world in which being a woman made the workplace less welcoming.
“My mom actually named me Jessica, but she gave me (the spelling of) a boy’s nickname so when people looked at my resume, they’d be more likely to hire me,” said McKinney, who co-owns Idaho-based Red Aspen, a company that manufactures false eyelashes.
The number of female entrepreneurs like McKinney is on the rise in Idaho. Women’s wages are increasing at a faster rate than men’s are, and state labor officials say women are entering the workforce in droves.
At the same time, census data released last week shows that Idaho still has one of the worst gender pay gaps in the country. Last month, a finance website declared Idaho the second-worst place to be a woman. Days before that, efforts to bring a Women’s Business Center to Idaho failed once again.
What do these conflicting figures say about the landscape for Idaho’s working women?
Widening wage gap
Idaho women make 75 percent of what male workers make, according to an American Association of University Women analysis of census data. That’s lower than the national average of 80 percent, and it leaves Idaho 46th in a ranking of states — again. More alarmingly, it’s a slight backslide from last year’s figure of 76.5 percent, further widening our state’s gap since 2013, when women made about 85 percent of what men made.
Despite that, women’s wages have actually grown by some measures, said Robert Kabel, research analyst supervisor for the Idaho Department of Labor. Between 2009 and 2016, median earnings for female workers in Idaho increased 11 percent, or about $3,100, while men’s median earnings increased only 7 percent — $2,800.
“The occupations that are dominated by females are lower-paying ones,” Kabel said.
The top five occupations where women outnumber men in Idaho are office clerks, retail salespersons, registered nurses, cashiers and customer service representatives — almost all of them occupations with average earnings close to minimum wage. Though an equal amount of men and women in Idaho are paid on an hourly basis, almost three times as many women as men report earning minimum wage or below minimum wage.
Increasingly, women are starting their own companies: An American Express study released last month named Idaho 18th in the nation for growth in the number of female-owned businesses. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the number of women in managerial or professional occupations has also increased in Idaho over the last decade.
“As we look at the vendors we work with, the majority are actually entrepreneurial women,” said McKinney.
But Idaho remains one of the only states in the nation without a Women’s Business Center — education networks overseen by the Small Business Administration and “designed to assist women in starting and growing small businesses.” The most recent attempt at a center in Idaho lasted five years, shuttering in 2016 after struggling to raise the $150,000 cash match the SBA required to continue its funding. Attempts to revive it have faltered.
“The Women’s Business Center closed down because we could not get support from the community,” said Shari Chatterton, the Idaho center’s former director. “The state of Idaho is still in big need of some kind of a support system for women who want to go into business. The WBC was a safe place for a lot of these women to come.”
Boisean Solymar Palm said female-specific resources would bolster her in her small business, a jewelry company called Fluff Hardware. Palm imagines a place for continuing education, networking and possibly a childcare cooperative.
“I feel like I would live there,” she said, laughing.
After the Women’s Business Center closed, Chatterton left Idaho to start her own business in Florida creating affordable tiny houses. She said she worries for Idaho’s “most vulnerable women,” whose best options for employment in rural areas may be entrepreneurship — particularly in today’s labor market.
Fewer open jobs means a changing workforce
Kabel said low unemployment is changing the way Idaho women work.
“We’re seeing demographic shifts because the labor force is so tight,” he said.
Though women make up 51 percent of Idaho’s population, just 45 percent of the state labor force is composed of female workers. In recent years, the total number of women in the labor force has dropped slightly. And since 2013, women have gone from holding 53 percent of part-time jobs to just 39 percent.
“That’s unusual. Before 2017, it was 50-50 (between men and women), or females were up to 60 percent (of part-time workers),” Kabel said. “The number of females entering part-time work has dropped pretty dramatically over the last two years.”
He thinks that may be part of a larger story about Idaho’s women.
“It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems that more women are transitioning directly into full-time work” rather than joining the labor force in part-time positions, Kabel said. He theorized that it’s tied to education — full-time positions often require more education than part-time ones, and Idaho women are more likely than men to pursue higher education. Regardless, he said, it’s a positive.
“More people are taking up jobs. We’re becoming more competitive, going to school. These are all good signs for Idaho,” Kabel said.
Chatterton said Idaho is inching toward progress.
“Even though the Women’s Business Center didn’t reopen, it will be back or something like it will be back,” she said. “Do I see a huge shift (in women’s opportunities)? If we’re having this conversation, then something is happening.”
Not only does McKinney notice that she works with more female entrepreneurs, her employees are all women, as well.
“I see a lot of women who are hungry and saying, ‘I’m here, I’m going to show up and work hard,’ ” she said.
It’s heartening to see that attitude, McKinney said. Palm agreed.
Part of Fluff Hardware’s mission is to “foster confidence, courage and leadership in women,” Palm said. She’s part of the Boise Period Project, which distributes menstrual hygiene products to the Valley’s homeless. She donates proceeds from her company to women’s causes. And she networks with other Boise “makers” — crafters, artists and creators, many of whom are women.
“I feel like (women) have to look out for one another in every and any way that we can,” she said.