Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday August 25th, 2015, 7:09pm

What's The Status Of Women's Equality In Illinois?

Ahead of Women's Equality Day on Wednesday, a new study shows Illinois is the third most equal state for women. But don't get too cheery over the findings, independent experts say. 

WalletHub, the personal finance website, ranked all 50 U.S. states on gender equality in three areas: education, political empowerment and workplace environment. Illinois had the third best overall ranking, behind New York at No.2 and Hawaii at No. 1. Utah earned the worst ranking.

A leader with the Chicago-based advocacy group Women Employed was pleased to see Illinois come in third for women's equality. However, the ranking "doesn't mean things are primarily good for women in Illinois," stressed Women Employed's Associate Director Jenny Wittner.

"It just means that by certain measures (conditions are) better than other states," she said.

Illinois tied with five other states in the study for having the top education ranking, which was based on math test scores and the percentage of residents aged 25 or older with at least a bachelor's degree.

In the political empowerment category, Illinois garnered the 18th best ranking for its percentage of women in Congress and the state legislature.

Illinois also ranked fifth in the area of workplace environment, which covered gender gaps in earnings, average work hours, unemployment rates, entrepreneurship and representation in executive and minimum wage positions.

Emily E. LB. Twarog, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's School of Labor and Employment Relations, said the unionization rate in Illinois, which is high relative to the national average, could be a factor behind the state's workplace environment ranking.

Unionization, she said, "has been shown, overall, to always boost women's employment opportunities across the board, in particular women of color."

According to WalletHub's analysis, Illinois had the smallest unemployment gender gap among the U.S. states. While that is good news, Illinois ranked 21st for its gender earnings gap. 

Wittner noted that many Illinois women are employed in low-paying jobs. She said 40 percent of full-time working Illinois women earn less than $35,000 a year. And over 20 percent of them make less than $25,000 annually.

Raising the minimum wage is at least one way to boost the earnings of female workers in Illinois and elsewhere, Wittner said.

Illinois' minimum wage is currently $8.25 an hour, a dollar above the federal level of $7.25. In Chicago, the hourly minimum wage went up to $10 in July. It will gradually rise to $13 an hour by 2019 under a Chicago ordinance approved last year.

Wittner said a higher minimum wage should be implemented across Illinois so that all women in the state can "enjoy the benefits of being paid closer to what they're worth and closer to a wage that will help them support themselves and their families."

Other policies to improve the economic well-being of women include those that would provide all workers with earned paid sick time and improve workplace scheduling practices, Wittner said.

Twarog said a key reason gender gaps in earnings and other areas persist, both locally and nationally, is because of the United States' lack of paid family leave.

"That's a huge issue that I think inhibits women's advancement in the workplace," she said. "In general, we just don't have family-friendly policies in the country. It's really just going to keep women ... at lower levels. And if you compare us to any European country, it's just going to continue. All those countries have leave."

To improve women's equality in Illinois, Wittner said the state should also adequately fund its financial aid system so that more women can access college-level programming to gain skills that will help them advance in the workplace.

In Illinois, need-based college assistance grants have gotten tied up in the state budget fight between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders.

Wittner said the budget stalemate "directly threatens women's economic advances." In addition to the funding uncertainty around the state's Monetary Award Program (MAP) for low-income college students, Wittner noted that many working mothers have lost access to the Child Care Assistance Program. That's because the Rauner administration implemented stricter eligibility rules for the program, which helps low-income working families afford child care, after Illinois entered the new fiscal year on July 1 without an agreed-upon budget.

"Those child care cuts make it impossible for thousands of women to even go to work," Wittner stressed.

Rauner slashed the child care assistance program, but he did sign pay equality legislation this month. The bill, HB 3619, extends requirements of the Illinois Equal Pay Act of 2003 to all employers, as opposed to only those with four or more employees.

Although Women Employed is glad the governor signed the bill, Wittner took a wide view of the sitution.

"Of course it was the right thing to do," she said of the bill's signing. "On the other hand, what most helps women's wages is unionization."

Much of the state budget standoff has involved Rauner battling with Democrats over his proposals to limit collective bargaining in Illinois.

"We are for policies that help women organize, get better wages, and we're certainly for this equal pay thing, but we have to view it in context of what's happening in the state of Illinois," Wittner said. "Anything that makes it harder for women to do those things, it undermines their ability to support themselves and their families."

Twarog called efforts to reduce collective bargaining among public employees a "direct attack on women workers."

"The workers that are really being looked at here are jobs that are gendered female," Twarog said. 

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