Women across the nation frustrated by earning less than men now have an option that could quickly narrow the gap and help them move on to more substantial economic achievements.
The answer: Move to Maryland.
The District of Columbia, Maryland and Massachusetts stand out, in that order, as the best states in the nation for women economically, based on a broad array of statistical measures, assessed in a new study of federal data produced by the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Whether it's pay, business ownership, education or a number of other measures, Maryland women rank at or near the top, the study shows.
Economists credit a thriving economy, fueled in part by substantial federal spending at institutions like the National Institutes of Health, the National Security Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and an army of government research contractors.
For Maryland women, the bottom-line benefits are significant. In 2005, Maryland women earned an average of $39,300, an income $7,400, or 23 percent, higher than the national average for women of $31,800.
That income is still 17.8 percent lower than the average pay for men in Maryland. but that shortfall is significantly smaller than the 24 percent pay edge men had over women nationally last year. The national pay gap between college-educated men and women actually widened slightly between 1995 and 2005, Labor Department data show.
It's not just pay that puts Maryland women ahead of the game. The state ranks second in the nation for the percentage of women employed in managerial or professional occupations. More than four out of 10 women in Maryland's work force are managers or professionals.
And Maryland ranked second for its share of women-owned businesses -- three in 10 Maryland businesses are owned by women.
When it comes to education, Maryland ranked fifth in the nation in 2004, with 34.6 percent completing four or more years of college, close to the 36.8 percent of Maryland men who have completed college. Nationally, 26.5 percent had at least a bachelor's degree in 2004 compared with 29.1 percent of men.
The good news for Maryland women comes against a backdrop of some troubling trends elsewhere.
Women in a number of states are doing significantly worse economically in recent years. Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia were identified as the worst states in the nation economically for women in the Institute for Women's Policy Research report.
Since 1995, the poverty rate among women in 15 states has increased, and in another 15 states women's poverty fell by less than one percentage point.
In West Virginia, long troubled by a lagging economy, women earned an average of $27,600 in 2005, and less than half the women had jobs, as compared to nearly two-thirds of Maryland women.
Nationally, women's labor force participation has grown more slowly in recent years, but it still lags men's nationwide -- 59.2 percent for women versus 71.8 percent for men.
Experts and activists express concern about the failure in recent years to narrow the national wage gap between men and women.
A Government Accountability Office study of the phenomena in 2004 concluded that after controlling for factors such as work experience, education and occupation, a measurable gap remained, with women earning 80 cents for each man's dollar.
Yet the GAO cautioned against attributing this difference primarily to discrimination, concluding that "we cannot determine whether this remaining difference is due to discrimination or other factors that may affect earnings." "Some experts," the report noted, "say women trade off career advancement or higher earnings for a job that offers flexibility to manage work and family responsibilities."
Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard who has studied trends in women's workforce participation, says it is not surprising that women leave the workforce from time to time to deal with family responsibilities or because of other challenges, but she hesitates to call it "opting out."
"Consider the lives of Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who are among the most high-profile women in America today," she noted in a recent interview with a representative of the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. "I think that there were moments in the careers of each of them when someone could have said 'Oh, they're opting out,' though we wouldn't have called it that then. But they didn't opt out. Perhaps each knew that they were going to continue at some point, but they were slowed down by either family forces or, in O'Connor's case, by the fact that she found it nearly impossible to get anyone to hire her."