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Among states, Arizona had smallest gap between men's, women's pay

WASHINGTON -- Arizona had the smallest gap between men's and women's pay among states in 2012, with women in the state earning about 87 cents to the dollar, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Arizona trailed only the District of Columbia, where women earned about 95 cents to a man's dollar, according the latest numbers from BLS, which said women nationally averaged about 81 cents on the dollar. The biggest disparity was in Wyoming, where women earned 65 cents to each dollar earned by men.

President Barack Obama this week called on states, Congress and business leaders to adopt policies that close the gender pay gap. But analysts say Arizona's pay equity is likely due to factors other than policy in a state that last actively considered equal pay legislation in the 1970s.

"Other states have definitely taken steps more recently," said Kate Gallagher Robbins, senior policy analyst for the National Women's Law Center, pointing to states like New York and Vermont that considered equal pay bills within the last year.

In Arizona, experts said, the small earnings gap may have more to do with the state's industrial mix, its demographics and generally lower overall incomes, among other factors.

"It's heartening to see that we figure well, but there are a lot of confounding factors," said Sapna Gupta, senior policy analyst at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy. "There's still a lot of progress to be made."

She noted that Arizona's median wage is still very low compared to other states. Arizona's median weekly paycheck was $732, below the national average but above 15 other states. Women in the state had median income of $670 per week, compared to men's $772.

Gupta said it will be interesting to watch Arizona's gender pay gap as the state continues to recover from the recession and median weekly wages increase.

"As the wages go up, will the gap be closed?" she asked. "Will it narrow? Will it widen? Will it disappear?"

Another factor in the state's relative pay equity is the type of work in Arizona, which has more service-based and less traditional and manufacturing jobs than the nation as a whole, she said.

That "industrial mix" argument was echoed by Dennis Hoffman, professor of economics at ASU's W.P. Carey School of Business, who pointed to other possible reasons as well.

Hoffman said Arizona tends to have many low-wage construction jobs that are dominated by male workers and high-wage service jobs in the financial, health-care and education sectors that are dominated by women.

He added that Arizona, as a young state unencumbered by the "old boy" networks that may be found elsewhere, has no problem with women in leadership positions, in government or business.

"The last three governors have been women. You have women throughout state and local government," Hoffman said.

"We embrace people for their productivity and their contributions to businesses and to the economy," he said. "Perhaps we're getting some reduction in gender pay gap from that."

Progressive groups were pleased to see the narrow earning gap in Arizona, but agreed that the state's pay equity probably comes from factors other than state policy.

"At a first glance, it seems great, but when you dig deeper you find that it may just be the economy and the businesses that are in Arizona," said Anna Chu, policy director for the ThinkProgress War Room at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

In terms of policy, she said, Arizona is "not necessarily the state that comes to mind when we think of states have a progressive leaning."

"It has almost a libertarian leaning, rather than a traditionally progressive leaning," Chu said.

But Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said she believes the state is very progressive - but after its own fashion.

"It's also a very progressive state, and I don't mean in terms of political opinion left or right," Sinema said of Arizona. "What I mean by progressive is that Arizonans are willing to do things that other states are not willing to do."

She pointed to the state's long history "of celebrating and recognizing the talents of women." Sinema also cited the state's voter-initiated clean-elections law, its legalization of medical marijuana and a ban on smoking in public places as examples of its willingness to break from convention.

"As a voting bloc, Arizonans are progressive in the sense - I mean that with a little "p" - that they're willing to try new things," she said.

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