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Why Is Government One of the Worst Industries for Equal Pay?

Women working in public administration make, on average, 25 percent -- or $16,900 -- less than men.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a press conference after he signed an executive order banning any employer in the city from asking applicants about their salary histories.
(Sipa via AP)
Given the fact that government is the institution requiring equal pay and that public-sector salaries are often publicized, one would think that women would be better off as civil servants. 

Think again.

According to a recent report from the online salary data firm Pay Scale, public administration has one of the highest gender pay gaps of 21 industries and professions. Women in the field, on average, make 25 percent -- or $16,900 -- less than men. Only finance and insurance; professional, scientific and technical servicing; and mining and quarrying have a bigger gap. 

There are many reasons for the disparity.

It’s not always that men are paid more than women for doing identical jobs. For one, men are far more likely to rise through the ranks in government and make more as a result. The gap is also a historical artifact of days when equal pay for equal work wasn’t a generally accepted principal in human resources. When women make less than men and across-the-board raises are handed out, the pay gap lives on even while everyone takes more money home.  

But those reasons are true for practically any industry and don’t explain why public administration’s gap is so high. 

Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations for the American Association of University Women, has a couple of guesses: There’s greater longevity in public-sector jobs, so pay gaps put into place years and sometimes decades ago tend to remain for a longer period than they would in the private sector. In addition, job transfers between and within departments tend to happen more often in government, so it’s easier for salary histories to follow employees around. 

“Equal pay for equal work, generally, is still a big problem. It’s a rampant issue,” says Maatz. “But as taxpayers, we have a vested interest in paying fairly. Taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to discriminate [in the public sector].” 

“Some people would say that if women would just ask for more, they’d get more. And there are studies that show that women are increasingly willing to negotiate,” says Maatz. “But you can’t negotiate around downright discrimination.”

To prevent discrimination, some states and cities are starting to take salary histories out of the equation. In the past year, politicians in Massachusetts, New Orleans, New York City and Philadelphia have all signed bills or executive orders to make it illegal for employers -- both public and private -- to ask job applicants what they made in previous positions. But Philadelphia’s new law, which was supposed to go into effect this month, has been temporarily put on hold by a federal judge in a lawsuit filed by the Chamber of Commerce. 

“By nature of being women, some employers assume they should be paid less when they come in. But that’s reinforced over time. So our solution was to say, ‘let’s not ask about pay history,’” says Ryan Berni, New Orlean’s deputy mayor of external affairs.

Minnesota still asks employees about their salary history, but even so, it’s been remarkably successful at addressing pay equity. Female employees there made 69 percent of male employees' salaries in 1976, according to Edwin Wilson, deputy commissioner of the state’s office of management and budget. By 1982, it was 74 percent. In 1993, it was 84 percent. And in the most recent survey, done earlier this year, it was 95 percent -- one of the smallest pay gaps in the country.

Minnesota has focused specifically on the pay gap for state workers by confronting the so-called “motherhood penalty,” the assumption that women are going to drop out of the workforce for a while when they have children, which places them at a disadvantage when it comes to promotions and pay. The state makes it easier for women -- and men -- with children to work by creating flexible work environments that allow for teleworking and paid parental leave.   

While Minnesota is closing the gap, it has reportedly widened in Texas. There, legislators’ threats to privatize government jobs have kept the state from being required to pay employees a living wage, according to Seth Hutchinson, president of the Texas State Employees Union.

As a result, it’s not just women who are impacted but children and taxpayers, too: According to Hutchinson, 10,000 children of Texas state employees are on Medicaid, the government’s health-care program for the poor.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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