Oklahoma women have few economic opportunities. Here’s how we can fix that.

Photo from Penn State used under a Creative Commons license.

A report released last month from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) ranked all 50 states on economic opportunity for women. Oklahoma came in 43rd. However, a careful reading of the report shows that it’s not just women who are in trouble economically. In Oklahoma, both men and women are struggling to get ahead.

What’s in the report?

IWPR’s rankings were based on a composite of four ratings: median annual full-time, year-round earnings for women; the ratio of median earnings between women and men for full-time, year-round employment; the percent of women in the labor force; and the percent of employed women in managerial or professional occupations.

The single lowest score Oklahoma received in all four categories was in median full-time, year-round annual earnings for women ($31,000). The state ranked 45th. However, when that $31,000 was compared to the median full-time, year-round earnings for men, IWPR found that Oklahoma women are earning almost 80 percent of what men make. Disheartening as that sounds, it’s actually comparatively good, and Oklahoma was ranked 29th for that indicator.

Just over half of Oklahoma women are in the labor force (56.3 percent; 42nd out of 50), and of those employed, only about 1 in 3 are in managerial or professional occupations (36.8 percent, 39th out of 50). Clearly, the picture is bleak. However, implementing proven mechanisms would help Oklahomans – men and women – build financial security for themselves and their families. Here’s just a few:

Raise the minimum wage

The report highlighted that wages are low for both men and women in Oklahoma. Given that one in eight Oklahoma families live in poverty and the state has one of the highest concentrations of minimum wage jobs in the US, it’s clear that too many working Oklahomans aren’t earning enough to get by. Furthermore, two in three minimum-wage workers are women. Raising the minimum (and sub-minimum) wage would both give hardworking families greater purchasing power and stimulate local economies, driving job creation.

Commit to workplace diversity

As Bill Gates famously told an audience in Saudi Arabia, a society that isn’t fully utilizing half its talent can’t make it to the top. Genuine commitment to workforce diversity programs would go a long way towards cracking Oklahoma’s glass ceiling – and make the state economy stronger as a result. There’s good evidence that more diverse groups outperform homogeneous competitors.

However, true commitment to diversity can’t just mean waiting for diverse candidates to come to your business. In many cases the pipeline to employment opportunities is weak or nonexistent for minorities, so businesses need to proactively recruit diverse candidates to find the talent that exists. DiversityConneX, for example, works to connect employers to diverse talent, for the betterment of both.

Employers also need to closely examine company culture and integrate diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the organization to make  sure diverse talent is allowed to contribute and is motivated to stick with the company. For diverse workers who may face unique pressures in a previously homogeneous workplace, retention is just as important as recruitment.

Strengthen proven programs to build economic stability

When you can’t get your feet under you, it’s virtually impossible to get ahead. Expanding a number of effective anti-poverty programs would help women – and Oklahomans in general – build secure financial foundations for themselves and their families.

  • WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) have potential to help recipients get ahead, but are currently underutilized, with restrictive eligibility requirements that limit their effectiveness. CAP Tulsa has released reports evaluating both programs, along with common-sense recommendations (WIC; TANF).
  • The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one of the most successful antipoverty programs in the US – and it could be even more effective. Relaxing income eligibility and loosening restrictions for childless workers would reduce poverty and increase the incentive to work.
  • Right now, roughly 150,000 Oklahomans at or below the poverty level ($24,000/year for a family of four) are without access to affordable health insurance because of the state’s decision to reject federal funds for expanding health coverage. Paying out of pocket for care – or simply going without – places a disproportionate strain on low-wage Oklahomans.

It’s clear that Oklahoma has the ability to increase economic security for all. The question is if it has the will to do so.

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Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

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