Studies and statistics on gender equality indicate working Hawaii women fare pretty well compared to men in the state — and to women nationwide.

But experts say there’s more to the picture than those numbers show.

“I don’t see it as all that rosy,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, chair of the University of Hawaii Manoa Women’s Studies Department.

A lack of affordable child care options and low-paying jobs still trouble Hawaii women, according to two UH experts.

People gather in front of the state Capitol during the Women’s March on Jan. 21, part of nationwide events to advocate for women’s rights, immigration reform and health care.

Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

Median salaries in Hawaii show that a woman working full-time earns, on average, 88 cents to a man’s dollar. That wage gap is smaller than the American average: Nationally, a woman earns 81 cents to a man’s dollar, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the smaller gap in the islands is partially because men earn less here than in many other states. Hawaii’s booming tourism industry includes a lot of minimum-wage and low-paying jobs, creating a wage floor that may narrow the gap.

Last year, America’s leisure and hospitality industry had the most workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage of all industries studied, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Maybe we just pay men badly,” Chesney-Lind said.

Still, men in Hawaii tend to work in “traditional, heavy industries” like construction, maintenance or manufacturing, while women dominate service industries, according to a 2010 state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism report.

The report concluded that the growth of service industries have likely increased the proportion of women in the workforce. Women now constitute 48 percent of the state workforce, up from the low 30th percentile range in 1960.

But as of 2006, women were far less likely than men to earn $50,000 or more, according to the report.

This graph shows pay disparity between Hawaii men and women.


If Hawaii women averaged the same pay as men, they would earn $2.5 billion more annually, according to a fact sheet from the National Partnership for Women and Families.

And a 2015 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found Hawaii women wouldn’t achieve pay equality until 2051, if trends continue.

Looking Beyond The Numbers

Hawaii recently ranked first in a WalletHub survey of best states for women’s equality. That study looked at factors including women’s income, the number of female U.S. and state lawmakers, affordability of doctor visits for women and the number of female minimum-wage workers.

Chesney-Lind said the Aloha State has an “amazing legacy” of advocating for women’s rights. It was the first to legalize abortion in 1970, and it’s the home of Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress and a champion of women’s issues, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Hawaii’s high ranking in the WalletHub survey could be due to the state’s congressional delegation being 75 percent female and an overall shortage of high-paying jobs for men. Hawaii doesn’t have as many jobs in the male-dominated financial or tech sector compared to many other states.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation is 75 percent female, including, from left, Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Tulsi Gabbard, and Sen. Mazie Hirono.

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Tourism industry jobs that women often hold, like housekeepers and food service workers, are physically demanding — and habitually working late nights can lead to alcohol abuse, Chesney-Lind said.

“I’m concerned about women in low-paying jobs and I’m concerned about an economy that’s tourism-based,” Chesney-Lind said. “We can sure as hell clean your hotel room … but when it comes to these other things that pay a lot of money, we expect men to do a better job.”

Monisha Das Gupta, chair of the UH Manoa Ethnic Studies Department and a professor of Women’s Studies, researches women working in the accommodations and food service industries.

Housekeepers have an “extremely demanding job” and often continue to work into their 50s and 60s. While it’s good that many of those women are unionized through Local 5 Unite Here and able to maintain the benefits and wages despite changes in the hospitality industry, cleaning an average of 16 rooms a day can take a major toll on the body.

Women — particularly those with immigrant roots or women of color —  are more heavily concentrated in minimum-wage jobs than men.

“Maybe we just pay men badly.” — Meda Chesney-Lind, UH Manoa Women’s Studies chair

In 2014, 47 percent of Hawaii’s workforce was female, but 14,000 more women occupied part-time jobs, according to the 2016 state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism data book.

About the same number of hourly wage workers from both sexes earned at or below the federal minimum wage in 2013, but women’s median hourly earnings were about $1.85 less than men’s.

Total Civilian Workforce (2014) Full-Time Workers Part-Time Workers
Men 338,000 287,000 51,000
Women 304,000 239,000 65,000

Source: 2016 DBEDT Data Book 

“We see a narrower gender gap when we compare minimum wage workers,” Das Gupta said. “That’s because there is a minimum wage floor.”

The gender wage gap could be reduced by increasing the minimum wage through legislation, she said.

Not only are immigrants and women of color — particularly African American and Asian women — subject to a greater wage gap, they’re particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment at work, Das Gupta said.

Female immigrants are often seen as having inadequate language skills. If they have higher education degrees from their homeland, they may not be accepted by American employers, she said.

Nationally, women go to college slightly more than men, but women are still underemployed, Das Gupta said. Hawaii’s “limited horizon of jobs” may limit women’s opportunities.

Working Mothers Struggle

Federal law allows workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child, but like most other states, Hawaii hasn’t required paid maternity or paternity leave. Only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island currently have paid family leave programs in place.

And Hawaii is one of the most expensive states for child care.

“Male-model careers,” like medicine, higher education or law, mean women are expected to work long hours, said Chesney-Lind. This forces many to postpone having children until their 40s, which increases health risks.

Closing The Gender Wage Gap

Working women who must care for children or elderly parents risk lowering pensions or Social Security incomes if they work shorter hours or temporarily drop out of the workforce, Das Gupta said. Hawaii’s high cost of living makes it difficult for women to afford child care, which causes many to turn to relatives for help.

But in spite of the struggles facing working women, Hawaii has good policies in place to encourage equal treatment in the workplace, Das Gupta said.

“These protections are easily eroded, so I think that we need to fight harder, take pride in that tradition and also make sure that these good policies remain in place,” Das Gupta said.

This year, five of the 35 bills introduced by the Women’s Legislative Caucus became law. That success rate is slightly higher than the Legislature’s overall rate.

But some efforts in the Legislature to help working women have fallen short, including one bill introduced this year that would have given state employees six weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn.

A failed bill from 2016 would have clarified Hawaii’s wage discrimination law to require that women who perform “substantially similar work” are paid as much as their male counterparts, unless a seniority or merit system is in place.

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