A female public radio reporter’s resignation over her inferior pay to the male reporters with the same Northwest news organization has sparked a debate about whether the gap was because of gender.

In a tweet on March 6, Emily Schwing said the primary reason she left her job as a Northwest News Network reporter was that her male colleagues make tens of thousands more. She and the network’s other female reporter, both based in Eastern Washington, made about $20,000 less in 2017 than the network’s two male reporters in Olympia, according to the most recent state salary data.

As Crosscut first reported last week, network executives attribute the difference to the organization’s pay structure, not gender. The nonprofit cooperative’s five reporters cover regional stories to share with 11 partner stations, but are employed by different stations that set their salaries. Schwing and a former managing editor of the network, Phyllis Fletcher, say that doesn’t excuse the gap in pay.

Nearly 60 years after Congress passed the Women’s Equal Pay Act, women continue to make less than their male counterparts — in Washington, women make 78 cents for every dollar men make, according to one study. While Northwest News Network executives disagree their pay gap can be chalked up to gender, board chairman Steve Bass said in an email that the salaries of reporters in Eastern Washington are “on the low side.”

Deborah Vagins, senior vice president of public policy and research for the American Association of University Women, said that admission is a sign network officials should take a hard look at pay. “That’s a huge pay differential,” Vagins said. “You will hear a lot of different rationales for why men and women are paid differently, but all evidence suggests discrimination continues.”

Network reporters are assigned to stations based on the geographic focus of their coverage and the station’s resources, partner station KUOW’s president Caryn Mathes said in an email. Gender has “absolutely nothing” to do with where reporters are hired, she said.

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Schwing and reporter Anna King were employed by Washington State University, but were based in Spokane and Richland, respectively. Their male colleagues, Austin Jenkins and Tom Banse, work for the University of Washington but are based in Olympia.

Fletcher, the networks’ managing editor from 2014 to 2017, secured raises for King, raising her salary from around $43,000 to $55,000 in that time. In 2017, Schwing made $51,400, while Banse and Jenkins made $71,300 and $75,900. The salary of a fifth reporter, who is based in Oregon, is not publicly available.

Pay is set by the employers, which have their own salary policies, Bass said. Pay may also be influenced by factors like seniority and performance, Mathes said. “‘Equity’ cannot be defined simply as everyone with the same job classification title being paid the same,” she said.

WSU didn’t consider other network reporters to be Schwing or King’s colleagues, spokesman Phil Weiler said. While network reporters are treated similarly in developing and distributing content, they work for different organizations in different markets, he said.

But Schwing and Fletcher don’t see the situation that way. Reporters have the same job duties, and factors like cost of living, experience and seniority don’t explain how large the gap is, they say.

The Council for Community and Economic Research calculated the cost of living index score for Olympia at 105.8, the Richland area at 98.9 and Spokane at 99.1, with 100 being the national average.

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Internal emails obtained by The Seattle Times show Schwing told supervisors she was concerned reporters in Eastern Washington were paid less and didn’t have a professional editor, web team or union representation like their colleagues to the west. “Although it may not be intentional, it also appears to have connection to gender,” her June email said.

Schwing acknowledges seniority could result in some difference in pay. Banse began working for the network in 1991, Jenkins in 2004, King in 2007 and Schwing in 2016.

“But to make tens of thousands more than me doesn’t make sense,” Schwing said.

The reporters have varied backgrounds in journalism, but all have at least a decade of experience. Banse worked in radio, and Jenkins was a TV reporter at multiple stations before joining the network, according to their network biographies. King was a print reporter for about five years before joining the network, and Schwing spent four years working in radio professionally and was a freelancer for outlets including NPR, American Public Media and BBC.

All four reporters have won multiple awards for their work, as well as individual honors. King, for example, was named journalist of the year by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Western Washington chapter in 2016.

In an email announcing Schwing’s departure, Northwest Public Broadcasting news manager Scott Leadingham said her stories were often picked up for national distribution. He cited her recent 20-month investigation in collaboration with The Center for Investigative Reporting on how Jesuit priests abused Native American children, then were sent to Gonzaga to retire.

Network partner stations and executives say they have discussed how to address different salary structure among stations, including making the network an employer, but have not found a solution. Mathes said stations aren’t able to further subsidize the network without undermining their own priorities.

For Fletcher, the reasons for the pay gap aren’t as important as addressing it.

“It’s worth looking at the entire system and saying, ‘Is this what we want? Is this fair?'” Fletcher said. “Dissecting and understanding how we got here is fine, but what I wanted to focus on is: How do we fix it?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that women make 78 cents less per dollar men make in Washington state, according to one study. The study actually found women make 78 cents per dollar men make.