Fresno is one of the best places in the U.S. when it comes to salary equity between men and women, according to an analysis by 24/7 Wall St., a financial information website.
But the rosy rating comes with the unfortunate reality that overall pay rates in the region are well below state and national averages.
The Fresno metropolitan statistical area, which includes all of Fresno County, had the second-smallest gender gap in median earnings among the largest metro areas in the country, according to the 24/7 Wall St. analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey.
Among all full-time earners, the median salary for women was more than 91% of what their male counterparts earned — second only to the North Carolina metro area that includes Durham and Chapel Hill.
Rounding out the top 5 were McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana.
But earnings for both men and women in the Fresno area are at the lower ends of the salary spectrum in the United States and within California. That's because a large proportion of the region's work force — of both genders — works in industries such as agriculture, food service/hospitality and retail, where hourly wages tend to be lower whether a worker is a man or a woman.
"What we have and what I see in this area is that we have this base of lower-income workers who are in survival mode," said Cathy Frost, president of BennettFrost Personnel Services in Fresno. "They are not in a position to invest in enhancing their résumé with education or training or that sort of thing."
The median 2012 salary among full-time workers in the Fresno market was estimated at $36,774, the Census Bureau reported. For men, the figure was a little higher, at $38,433 — estimated to be the fourth-lowest median salary for men among the nation's large metro areas. Women earned a little less, at $35,088 — 28th lowest in the nation for women.
That compares to a nationwide median salary of $47,887 among men and $37,483 among women — a gap of 17.5% between the genders. In California, the male median is $50,369, or 16.6% more than the female median of $42,021.
"Where there is little difference in the lower levels, we see more differences at the higher levels," Frost said. In the Fresno area, she added, "there are more women in the workplace in lower-level jobs."
Education, as has long been the rule, is critical to earning power.
"In higher-level jobs, many employers aren't even looking at anyone if they don't have a degree, and that's becoming a discriminating factor" more than gender, Frost said. "It used to be that people who invested in their careers could advance without investing in their education, but now that's a disadvantage."
Despite its high ranking among the nation's large metro areas, Fresno's overall lower wages represent an uncomfortable norm for smaller metro statistical areas in the central San Joaquin Valley. Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties all shared in the region's lower wages, according to the Census Bureau data.
But in the Valley, Madera County stood out as the only area in which the median salary for women was higher than for men. At $36,482, the median for women was $34 — or one-tenth of 1% — more than for men.
Elsewhere in the Valley, the salary advantage for men ranged from 11.8% in Merced County to 28.5% in Kings County.
Mind the gap
Among major industry sectors in the Fresno metro area, women outnumbered men in only four: finance/insurance/real estate, private education/private health services, food service/accommodations, and public administration.
The only one of those in which women earned more than men, however, was also the lowest-paying: food service and accommodations, in jobs at restaurants, fast-food restaurants, hotels and motels. Full-time female workers had median earnings of $22,415 in 2012, compared to men at $20,560, according to Census Bureau data.
The other women-dominated sectors in Fresno are higher-paying — but they also had much wider gaps between what men and women earned:
In the education/health industry, the median pay for men was $51,055, about 20% more than the women's median of $41,111.
In the financing/insurance/real estate industry, the median salary for men was $55,377, more than 34% higher than the $36,526 median for women.
In public administration, the median pay for men was $71,717, compared to $46,816 — a difference of almost 35% between the genders.
Fresno Women's Network members who gathered for a mixer Thursday evening in Clovis were pleased that Fresno ranked well in the national study, but lingering gaps in some of the higher-paying fields were a source of dismay.
Women's Network President Katrina Tonkogolosuk, an account executive with Marketing Plus in Fresno, said the organization was formed in 1987 to give female business owners and professionals the same type of business networking opportunities that men enjoyed through formerly male-only groups such as the Rotary Club.
"People do business with people you know, you like, you trust," she said. "As women, if we don't have those networks or the ability to build those relationships the way men have in the past, it limits the business that we can take part in."
Tonkogolosuk said she has not experienced pay discrimination in her career because of her gender. But "there are definite circles or situations where I feel like I'm on the outside of the circle," she added. "That makes me persevere that much harder to get into that inside circle, and I'm pretty persistent."
Closing the margin
Carolyn Pierce, president of Heald College's Fresno campus, said she was surprised about the size of the pay gaps in some key industries where women outnumber men.
"I don't think it makes good business sense to have that gap, because you always want the best employee no matter what their gender is," Pierce said. "I think you almost want a mixture of the genders. I think that makes for a better workplace when you have a combination of the genders."
Awareness of pay equality is high at Heald College because the school is required to track salaries of faculty for reports to the U.S. Department of Education. There, she said, abilities and educational background — and not gender — are the key drivers behind hiring and salary decisions.
"When I graduated from UCLA with a business degree, I thought I was being practical," she said. But would-be employers were more concerned with her ability to type, "and I couldn't type. I didn't learn that at UCLA."
During her early career working at a secretarial school, "I found that ladies coming out in nine months from a secretarial school were making more money per month than I was with a bachelor's degree," Pierce said.
"So that's when I became a strong believer in having skills."
Lisa Rinehart, a recruiting director in Fresno for Principal Financial Group, said the local financial industry has its share of women who earn six- and seven-figure incomes.
"I have seen (gender inequality) in my career, but in financial services each person is allowed to determine their level of income," she said. "It's all results driven. ... Financial advisers have the opportunity to earn a six-figure income without a college degree. Each person is driven and has the opportunity to affect the level of income they make."
But she said there can be biases among customers that provide an advantage for men in the industry. "There's a perception there that some people prefer to work with men," Rinehart said. "But … I've also received responses back from women saying 'I prefer to work with a woman.' "
Despite the gaps that remain, Tonkogolosuk said she is confident that progress will continue to close the distance.
"We've made such great advances just in my adult lifetime. We just need to keep pushing the bar," she said.
"We've stopped taking no for an answer and we've pushed forward. ... I think the mindset that women belong at home, that's just not realistic anymore."
"I have seen (gender inequality) in my career, but in financial services each person is allowed to determine their level of income. It's all results driven." — Lisa Rinehart, a recruiting director in Fresno for Principal Financial Group
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, firstname.lastname@example.org or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.