If you would have told Naomi Gallmeyer when she was a little girl that she’d grow up to be a plumber, she says she probably wouldn’t have believed you, but that’s exactly what happened.
Today, she’s drilling the holes in preparation for laying pipe in a Habitat for Humanity house. She works for Jane Hagedorn, who owns BeaDay Plumbing, a mostly female plumbing operation based in Iowa City.
“I was working at a restaurant and was topped out at pay. I had found a class at Kirkwood that was a plumbing class. It was only a 9 month program, and of course, I was the only woman in the class. Afterwards, I sent out, I think, 13 or 14 resumes, and I sent one to Jane and she was the only one who responded to my resume,” Gallmeyer says.
Gallmeyer is among two percent of women who work in the construction trades nationwide and one percent of women in Iowa. She spends her days dressed in jeans and a t-shirt wielding a power drill.
She’s also in the minority because can expect to make almost the same amount of money as a man who holds the same job.
In Iowa, the wage gap between white men and white women is the smallest for women like Gallmeyer who hold associate’s degrees, and for women who work in STEM fields, hospitality, the trades and jobs in natural resources.
“A lot of those jobs tend to be union based jobs, a lot of the plumbers that come in the electricians that come in – they have unions that support them and support their wages and fight for things like benefits, so that’s why in the trades you could see more equitable wages between men and women," says Kristen Corey, program planner for the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women.
Those jobs in the trades, however, aren’t always easy to land. As Gallmeyer said, she sent out more than a dozen resumes and only heard back from Hagedorn.
“They were all male-oriented plumbing shops, and she was willing to take a risk on me. I think it was just because of the woman factor, you know, [the idea that I] wouldn’t be able to keep up with the boys,” Gallmeyer says.
Even though the gender pay gap is smaller in fields like Gallmeyer’s, a gap still exists. Statistics compiled by the American Association of University Women ranks Iowa 28th out of 50 states for its gender pay gap, giving the state a D plus. The pay gap is even larger for minority women.
African American women can expect to make 61 cents for every dollar a man makes, and Latinas make 58 cents on every dollar.
Erika Billerbeck is a conservation officer with the Iowa DNR based in Johnson County. Her job has one of the smallest wage gaps in the state.
During the summer, Billerbeck spends a lot of time patrolling the lake in Coralville. She’s one of only six women working for the Iowa DNR in conservation. She has spent her career outdoors and loves it but says sometimes it’s isolating.
“It’s kind of hard to describe. There are definitely times when I wish I had more female company to work with. I like working with the guys who I work with, but there’s just some things that you want to have women around for. There are times when that would be nice,” Billerbeck explains.
Motivating girls to take jobs in male dominated sectors has been touted as one part of a strategy to close the wage gap. Corey stresses that the gender pay gap is not just a “woman problem.”
“I always think about women’s families too. It’s not just women who are affected, its women’s families. A lot of women may make more than their husbands now, so if you start off with a lower wage at the get-go, I think you could affect people’s families and women and children in poverty.”
Corey says raising the minimum wage in the state would go a long way towards closing close the gender pay gap. Seventy percent of minimum wage earners in Iowa are women. Legislation that would’ve raised the state’s minimum wage failed in the 2015 legislative session, but Senate Democrats have said they will reintroduce the issue next year.