How Governments Are Closing the Gender Pay Gap

From banning certain hiring questions to opening up pay discussions between coworkers, states and municipalities are addressing years of inequality.
July 30, 2018
Woman in job interview.
(Shutterstock)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

For years, Caseca Stegall, a Fulton County IT manager suspected that she was paid less than some of the men who held the same job but had less experience and education than her. Proof came after she filed an open-records request, which revealed that her salary was 20 percent less than some of her male counterparts in the department. 

“I was frustrated, and I felt that things were not fair,” she says.

But there were no county rules or policies at the time, around 2010, that could help her.

That changed in February 2017, when Fulton County, the largest county in Georgia, implemented a new policy that allows county employees to ask for a personal pay study and receive a pay adjustment if it shows any kind of inequity. By November, her salary was raised from $76,300 to $90,000 -- the same as a male colleague parallel in all other ways but pay.

Since the new policy took effect, about 30 percent of requests have resulted in raises, according to Kenneth Hermon, the county's chief human resources officer. No salaries have been reduced.

Across sectors, full-time female employees earn only 83 percent of what full-time male employees earn, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The pay gap is even bigger for public administration jobs, according to the online salary data firm Pay Scale.

After years of attacks on the gender pay gap, governments across the country are pursuing ways to reduce the historical discrepancy between men’s and women’s salaries.

“There’s an incredible outgrowth of new legislation and municipal regulations,” says Pamela Coukos, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Working Ideal, which advises local governments and private-sector companies on pay equity.

In California and Oregon, for instance, public and private employers are now required to conduct more rigorous pay analysis to detect pay disparities. In Oregon, the assessment must happen at least every three years, according to the state's HR office.  

Other laws seek to bring down the barriers that keep employees from learning about pay gaps in the first place. New Jersey banned employers from retaliating against employees for discussing their salaries with coworkers.

"For a long time in professional workplaces, it was standard that you weren't supposed to talk about what you made. You weren't allowed to disclose that information or to share it with other employees," says Coukos. "But salaries don't need to be secret, and if they are secret, that creates barriers to finding and fixing pay equity problems."

More than a dozen states and cities have also addressed one of the most pernicious causes of pay inequality: the reliance on salary history to set new employees’ pay. There is strong evidence that women start their careers at lower salaries than men and that their salary history depresses progress over time, says Coukos. The fact that women often stay in public-sector jobs for long periods exacerbates this phenomenon.

To break that cycle, governments are making it illegal for either public or private, or both, employers to ask salary history questions either on job applications or at any time during the hiring process.

Implementation of this change isn’t easy. “Everyone is very accustomed to base where you’re at on where you’ve been,” says Coukos.

The process of rolling out D.C.’s new policy presented “a cultural shift for people who had been working in government for a long period of time,” says Justin Zimmerman, a human resources official for the District of Columbia, which banned salary history questions for public-sector job applicants at the end of 2017. Some hiring managers, he says, feared offending an applicant “with a salary offer that was too low without knowing their salary history.”

Without past salary as a benchmark, pay studies need to be rigorous and updated frequently, with firm rules set as to how education, experience, credentials and responsibilities are combined to set salary levels, says Coukos. Fulton County already developed a more formulaic way of deciding compensation.

“It ensures that decisions are consistent,” says Hermon, the county’s HR chief. “Before it was like the Wild West.”

One concern about closing pay gaps is that it costs employers more money. While that is true, Hermon believes more equitable salaries will save costs down the road on litigation and make labor costs more consistent and predictable. Not to mention the boost in employee morale.

“Employees,” he says, “have a great appreciation that the county is looking out for their best interest.”

This appears in the Management newsletter. Subscribe for free.