Two Kansas House members say representative offered ‘we work harder’ defense of gender pay gap

GOP legislator says critique misstates remark at Women’s History Month event

By: and - April 6, 2022 3:59 pm
Two members of the Kansas House say they heard Rep. Paul Waggoner, R-Hutchinson, claim the gender pay gap was due to men working harder than women. The comment purportedly occurred during a Women's History Month event. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Two members of the Kansas House say they heard Rep. Paul Waggoner, R-Hutchinson, claim the gender pay gap was due to men working harder than women. The comment purportedly occurred during a Women’s History Month event. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Hutchinson state representative purportedly declared aloud during a bipartisan Kansas House floor recognition of Women’s History Month that women earned less in the workplace because men worked with more intensity at their jobs, two female legislators said.

The ceremony before the Kansas Legislature involved eight Republican and Democratic women legislators who honored women who broke U.S. professional barriers and who shared their despair at women receiving 82 cents for every $1 earned by men.

Rep. Heather Meyer, a Democrat from Overland Park, said in an interview Wednesday that Rep. Paul Waggoner, a Republican seeking a third term in the House, said aloud a reason for the salary disparity was that men had a stronger work ethic. She heard the remark last week while sitting at her House floor desk next to Rep. Linda Featherston, D-Overland Park. Waggoner’s desk is behind those of Featherston and Meyer.

“I hear from behind me, ‘That’s because we work harder,'” Featherston said. “I hear lots of comments behind me and I usually just let it go because it’s not worth it. But that was too far. So, I turned around and I told him that I worked three jobs to put my husband through med school, and I certainly worked as hard as he ever did. I turned back around, and then I heard him say, ‘Well, it’s a statistical fact.’ And that’s when I was really like, OK, fine, you want to double down on this.”

She said she was so startled by Waggoner’s conclusions that she neglected to mention she had two preschoolers at home while she supported her husband’s pursuit of a medical education.

In a brief interview, Waggoner said Meyer and Featherston weren’t portraying his remark accurately. He declined to elaborate at that time, but later sent a statement by email to the Kansas Reflector.

Waggoner said a female legislator addressing the full House about Women’s History Month had noted in her speech the wage gap between men and women widened after a woman gave birth.

“I said, to myself, something to the effect that, ‘Well, married men then work harder and longer,’ which is a known fact that is well established,” Waggoner said. “Featherston, surprisingly having heard my comment, turned around and said, ‘Well, I worked two jobs to put my husband through med school.’ At which point, the matter was dropped.”

“My comment was about married men and I stand by it,” he said. “You can Google the topic and find much the same analysis. It has nothing to do with the average woman’s earning either before or after marriage. It was just about males.”

In April 2019, the Hutchinson News reported Waggoner used the derogatory term “harpies” to refer to women while considering an invitation to speak at meetings of the Hutchinson chapter of Women for Kansas. The organization’s mission was to “restore integrity, transparency and fiscal responsibility and balance to Kansas by electing moderates to public office.”

Waggoner, a conservative Republican, appears to have mistakenly sent an email to Betty Taylor, the chapter’s co-leader, that was addressed to “Allie,” whom Waggoner asked for advice on whether to accept requests from Women for Kansas.

“Do you think I should ever do this in the future?” Waggoner asked in that email. “Since I can speak to liberals and conservatives? Or, would this just bring out the harpies?”

The term harpy refers to a predatory or shrewish person. In Greek mythology, it defined a foul creature with the face of a woman and body of a bird. English playwright William Shakespeare used the word to refer to a nasty or annoying woman.

Meyer, who at times was the primary household wage earner when her husband was temporarily out of work, said she and Featherston initially looked at each other in shock because it would be inappropriate for a legislator to articulate what could be viewed as a defense of gender pay inequities while watching his peers honor Women’s History Month.

“It’s pretty hurtful,” Meyer said. “We can’t really tackle the root of the issue, because the men in charge are the root of the issue.”

Featherston afterward posted to social media that a legislator, who she didn’t identify, offered a comment that could be considered justification for salary differentials between men and women.

“I would just encourage him to think about the women in his life, and the women that are his constituents, and think about if he really meant to talk about them that way,” Featherston said.

During the House ceremony, Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said a Pew Research Center survey indicated 42% of women had experienced gender discrimination at work.

There is a related “motherhood penalty,” she said, because women lose ground in the pay-equity fight after giving birth and men tend to earn more after becoming fathers.

“As recent years have painfully indicated,” Ballard said, “inequality and sexism are still very much alive and prevalent in the United States and world.”

The United States marked “Equal Pay Day” on March 15, which exists to demonstrate women had to work 74 extra days in 2022 to catch up to what men earned in 2021.

“This Equal Pay Day, it is clear that pay equity remains elusive for many women regardless of their occupation or sector,” said Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.

Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.