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The nation's wage gap is punishing Utah women, costing them and their families nearly $5 billion annually, according to a report released Tuesday.

If the wage gap vanished, each full-time working woman in Utah could have purchased two more years' worth of food; family health-insurance premiums for five years; or paid mortgage and utility bills for 10 more months than they otherwise could afford.

Necessities such as these would be particularly important for the 24 percent of women-led households in Utah that are living below the poverty line, according to report from the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy groupNational Partnership for Women & Families.

"Utah is lagging behind the majority of states," said Sarah Crawford, the organization's director of workplace fairness. "Many factors account for the gap, but, certainly, part of it is persistent discrimination in the workplace."

On average, full-time working women in Utah are paid more than $14,600 less than their male counterparts annually ($31,186 compared with $45,800) — a gap that is the fourth largest in the nation. With 46 percent of Utah women bringing in more than a quarter of their families' incomes and women at the head of more than 80,000 households, unequal wages are harming families, according to the report, done in conjunction with the American Association of University Women.

"This research proves that the gender pay gap is not simply a women's issue," said Lisa Maatz, the association's executive director. "When a third of all families [nationally] is headed by single women, this isn't pin money. It's the life bread for many families. And most two-parent households cannot get by without two salaries, so when one parent isn't bringing in a fair amount, everyone in the family is affected."

The gap in earnings for Utah women isn't all that surprising, considering their troublesome college graduation rates, said Lecia Parks Langston, an economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Utah has the worst gap in the nation between men and women earning bachelor's degrees or higher — a difference of 6 percentage points. The Utah education gap more than doubles that of the next closest state, Idaho, at 2.7 percentage points, while the national average is 1.3 points.

"Obviously, education pays," Langston said. "Culturally, women in Utah may think that they won't have to work, but they do — and at a higher percentage than women nationally. Women need to take responsibility and make sure that they are getting the kind of education they will need."

Throughout the years, however, prospects for Utah women have dimmed.

Prior to 1980, they graduated from college at a higher rate than other women in the United States. But by 2000, they had lost that edge. Although Utah women have been receiving more education since then, they're still not keeping up with men, or their U.S. female counterparts.

At the same time, Utah men are "head and shoulders" above their national counterparts, posting a 32 percent rate of college graduation, compared with the U.S. average of 28 percent, Langston said.

Nicolle Johnson, 33, a senior at Utah Valley University majoring in business and communication, said going into debt was the biggest drawback in initially completing her education. The Virginia transplant was working for a company that helped with her tuition at the Orem campus, but shortly after she completed her two-year degree in December 2008, her firm went bankrupt. Johnson decided that the only avenue to earning a competitive income was more education.

"Yes, education helps in getting a better paycheck," she said. "But it also gives women confidence to go after a job that you know you're qualified to get — and to insist on pay that is equal to your abilities, rather than settling for less."

Utah is not the only state with a wage gap.

Nationally, women working full time earn an average of 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. The gap has been closing at a rate of less than half a cent per year since the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act. At that pace, according to the report, working women won't come close to being paid the same amount as men until 2058.

"Unless lawmakers and employers make eliminating the wage gap a priority, generations of women and their families are going to continue to suffer," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, in a statement.

"That's why the reintroduction of the Paycheck Fairness Act in Congress is so essential. This legislation is important to efforts to end wage discrimination and [ensure] that working women are paid fairly."

The Paycheck Fairness Act, designed to close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, was passed by the U.S. House, but it fell two votes short of moving forward in the Senate last year.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, voted against advancing the bill. He said the act would expose employers to civil penalties far above an aggrieved worker's back pay.

What equal pay in Utah would buy

• Two more years' worth of food, or 4,000 additional gallons of gas.

• Ten more months of mortgage and utility payments.

• Nearly five more years of family health-insurance premiums.

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Source • National Partnership for Women & Families