Male-Female Wage Gap in Cowboy Country

There are less than 400 human residents of King County, in rural northwest Texas i i

There are less than 400 human residents of King County, in rural northwest Texas -- but about 1,000 horses and 10,000 head of cattle. Amy Walters, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Amy Walters, NPR
There are less than 400 human residents of King County, in rural northwest Texas

There are less than 400 human residents of King County, in rural northwest Texas -- but about 1,000 horses and 10,000 head of cattle.

Amy Walters, NPR
Cole Hatfield, 12, helps cull and brand cattle at the Four Sixes Ranch

Cole Hatfield, 12, helps to cull and brand cattle at the Four Sixes Ranch in King County, Texas. Hatfield says he's a cowboy for life, despite the low pay. Amy Walters, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Amy Walters, NPR
Windmills and barbed wire -- a sign outside the old King County Courthouse

Windmills and barbed wire -- a sign outside the old King County Courthouse sums up the character of the land. Howard Berkes, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Howard Berkes, NPR

In the United States, men generally earn more money than women — about 25 percent more, on average. But that’s not the case everywhere. In 15 counties scattered across America, women working full time, on average, take home bigger paychecks than men.

All of those counties are rural, and most are in the Western United States, including King County, Texas, where this unconventional wage gap is widest. The average female worker in King County makes 30 percent more than her male counterpart — that equals about $9,000 a year.

NPR’s Howard Berkes recently visited King County to meet some of the working men and women there, and examine the reasons behind the gap.

King County is true cowboy country. In fact, its rolling prairies and rugged cowpokes are featured in Marlboro cigarette ads running overseas. The county stretches over 900 square miles of range land and oil fields in northwestern Texas. There are less than 400 human residents, about 1,000 horses and about 10,000 cows. No stoplights, no supermarkets, no restaurants, no local newspapers, no incorporated towns.

And that's part of the reason for the wage gap — much of the work here is traditionally defined as "men's work." Hard, dirty, often dangerous work, punching cattle or tending oil rigs. Men wear spurs, and use them.

Women, on the other hand, outnumber the men at the local courthouse, and there are more female teachers in the schools. Those jobs generally pay better than work as a ranch hand, and teachers get many benefits — free housing, a salary boost — for working in such a remote location.

But men and women say the dollar amounts don't tell the full story. Some ranch hands, for example, also get free housing, plus health insurance, a pickup truck and gas, and other benefits. That, and a full year's supply of beef.

And regardless of the wage gap, the traditional male-female roles remain much the same as anywhere else. The biggest ranch in the county may be owned by a woman in Fort Worth, but it's managed by men. Men are the decision-makers at the courthouse, and both the principal and superintendent at the school are men.

All this talk of male-female pay gaps doesn't phase Linda Lewis, who makes a good living as the County Clerk, and her husband Ron Lewis, a veteran cowboy. "It doesn't concern us," says Ron Lewis. "God's been good to us. He’s provided for us really well, we've raised our family here. It's just a blessing."

"It's not mine and yours — it's ours. We put it together," adds Linda Lewis. "So it's no big deal."

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