Photo By DENNIS MYERS Lobbyist Marlene Lockard, gesturing at right in the hallway outside the Nevada Assembly, represents the Nevada Women’s Lobby.

“I know that’s an improvement,” Jan said. “But I don’t understand why that kind of gap exists in the first place.”

Jan—not her real name—was talking about the results of a new report on the wage gap between male and female Nevadans. She’s an accountant and single parent who lives in the Meadowood area. She once worked as a waitress while training for accountancy. Today, she supports her child and also helps out her mother.

“I wanted not to have to rely on tips, to get into something white collar,” she said.

So it was a disappointment to her to learn that for every dollar earned by men in Nevada, woman are paid 17 cents less, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

“Women are increasingly responsible for the economic security of their families,” the report said.

“Women of color experience even greater disparities,” according to the report. “African-American women working full time in Nevada are paid just 78 cents for every dollar paid to all men, which amounts to a difference of $9,584 per year. Latinas fare worse, being paid just 62 cents on the dollar, or $16,071 less than all men per year of employment.”

Marlene Lockard, lobbyist at the Nevada Legislature for the Nevada Women’s Lobby, was troubled by the new numbers and said she thinks discriminatory employment practices are fostered by the political climate.

“The president just signed the Lilly Ledbetter [pay equity] law when he was elected … but just a month ago you had Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, who signed the bill repealing equal pay in Wisconsin,” Lockard said. “And then you had the … legislator that stood up and said men need the money more than women. I mean, this is 2012 and these statements are being made today. And then on Meet the Press this morning, you’ve got this guy arguing with Rachel Maddow that she’s wrong, that women don’t earn less than men. And so I think that there’s just this concerted effort to obfuscate the issue.”

Everyone we spoke with mentioned the legislator Lockard referenced. He is Wisconsin state Sen. Glenn Grothman, who sponsored the law Walker signed and who made national news on April 7 after telling reporter Michelle Goldberg that women have different “goals in life. You could argue that money is more important for men. I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money-conscious. To attribute everything to a so-called bias in the workplace is just not true.”

It’s true that at one time, some women had more options and a choice of whether or not to work. In the early days of the women’s movement that arose in the late 1960s, one dispute was over whether women should enter the workplace or stay home. Women’s rights advocates said they just wanted women to have the option to work while conservatives characterized them as trying to force women out of the home. That is no longer the issue. As the middle class has been squeezed, its households need two incomes. Women are breadwinners.

“Females used to have the point that they’d like to choose,” Nevada economist Glen Atkinson said. “They’ve lost that right because they have to work.” The italics were in his tone of voice.

The political climate, Atkinson said, seems to have legitimized actions that until recently were stigmatized: “I’m surprised it has improved at all, as it is. … There’s a lot of very conservative action against all kinds of progressive policies, employment policies and other policies as well. I just heard some state legislator talk about go[ing] back to the old thing about the male’s the breadwinner, and males should get jobs before females. … People didn’t say that a few years ago. … It seemed like they stopped saying this kind of thing.”

Traditionally, two of Nevada’s highest paying industries are mining and construction.

“Mining, of course, is not that big of an employer [in Nevada],” Atkinson said. And construction in the state is in the economic doldrums. “In the big industries—hospitality—it shouldn’t be a problem,” Atkinson said.

There is general agreement with that point, that among casino and hotel employees there is likely very little pay disparity.

That makes the endurance of the wage gap even more of a puzzle. Sheila Leslie, a veteran state legislator, said, “It is perplexing that this inequality continues, given the huge gains women have seen in accessing higher education. There’s no rational reason for women to still be making less than men for the same work. However, there are still some people, like Wisconsin state Sen. Grothman, who believe that ‘money is more important for men’ because women are more oriented to staying home and taking care of the kids. He sponsored the repeal of the equal pay law in Wisconsin … because he believes the pay disparity is a ‘myth of liberal women’s groups,’ despite multiple studies proving the disparity is real. How do we counter this type of nonsense when our policy-makers are willing to deny the facts because they don’t fit a more attractive political narrative? “

Denial that a wage gap exists, in spite of evidence, was at play in the Meet the Press incident that Lockard mentioned, when Republican consultant Alex Castellanos told talk show host Rachel Maddow that there is no gender wage gap.

Maddow: “Do women make less than men?”

Castellanos: “No.”

Castellanos argued that women and men are not on the same footing because “men work an average of 44 hours a week. Women work 41 hours a week. Men go into professions like engineering, science and math that earn more. Women want more flexibility.”

Leslie said an important step in doing something about pay equity is to speak out against comments like those of Grothman. That, she said, will help change the political climate.

The effectiveness of pay equity laws is in dispute. Leslie said, “I think it’s very difficult to legislate equal pay.” There are both federal and—in most states—state pay equity laws. Pay equity experts say that frequently, taking a discrimination case to state court can be more effective and rapid than using a federal remedy.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic floor leader, said he tried to pass a “Paycheck Fairness Act” to reinforce equal pay laws.

“Unfortunately, when I brought this legislation for a vote in 2010, Republicans filibustered, and now the leading Republican presidential candidate refuses to declare whether he supports measures that protect wage equality,” Reid said.

However, there was no filibuster against Reid’s bill. It was an “imaginary filibuster” of the kind permitted by U.S. Senate leaders. A single senator can register his or her intention to filibuster and that will automatically impose a 60-vote threshold (the number of votes required to stop a filibuster) on the bill at issue. Senate leaders, to keep the floor clear for other purposes, do not require senators to actually filibuster to fulfill their threats.

This procedure is not authorized by Senate rules. It is a leadership strategy developed in 1975. It has been used since Obama became president to stop Democratic initiatives. Reid can end its use at any time.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...