Washington area wage gap differs widely across ethnicities

How close are women in the Washington region to achieving pay parity with their male counterparts?

According to two recent studies, the pay gap for women is narrower in this region than it is nationally and in many other localities across the nation. Researchers largely attribute this to the unusual level of transparency of compensation at one of the area’s largest employers: the federal government.

However, the situation is starkly different for the region’s minority women, who still lag far behind men when it comes to pay.

A study by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) found that the District had the slimmest gender wage gap in the nation. According to that report, which evaluated pay on a state-by-state basis and included the District in its calculations, women in the District make 90.4 cents for every dollar a man makes. That’s significantly higher than the national average of 77 cents.

Maryland also easily exceeded the national average, with women there making an average of 86 cents on the dollar compared with men. Virginia was closer to the national average but still exceeded it, with women in the Commonwealth earning 77.6 cents on the dollar.

A second study, by the National Partnership for Women & Families (NPWF), examined pay in the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas. It found that women in the Washington area make 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. That would make the region’s gender pay gap the 14th smallest, behind metro areas including Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Researchers say the workplace policies of the federal government, which employs more than 370,000 people in the Washington area, likely have played an important role in tightening the local wage gap.

Because of its clearly defined pay scales and the fact that its salary information is publicly available, “There’s a little more fairness in the way that wages are set,” said Sarah Crawford, director of workplace fairness at NPWF.

Though researchers were encouraged by the region’s relatively favorable pay for all women, they see causes for concern.

“You can’t break out the champagne, because the gap between white men and women of color is really just disturbing,” said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at NWLC.

NPWF found that African American women in the Washington area made only 64 cents for every dollar a man makes, while Latinas made 55 cents.

The NWLC study indicated an even greater divide: African American women in the District made 52.6 cents on the dollar, and Hispanic women made 44 cents on the dollar. It concluded that while the District had the smallest pay gap for women overall, it has the third largest pay gap for both groups of minority women.

Goss Graves said this is largely because of “occupational segregation,” in which minority women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs.

“Walk into any hotel. Who’s changing the bed and who’s parking the cars?” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. The women are usually doing the housekeeping, and they’re often paid less than men working in other hospitality jobs, O’Neill said.

“We’re hoping these findings are a clear and resounding wake-up call for politicians” to take policy actions to help close the gap, Crawford said.

Advocates say the Paycheck Fairness Act could be a step toward ensuring equal wages for women. The bill would prohibit retaliation against those who share salary information with their co-workers.

“Transparency in wage structures and transparency in salaries is a very large part of closing the wage gap,” O’Neill said.

The legislation would also fund training programs for women and girls that focus on negotiation skills and would reward employers that make significant efforts to eliminate pay disparities. President Obama urged Congress to pass the legislation in his State of the Union address this year.

Equal-pay advocates also say that increasing the federal minimum wage — another proposal Obama has touted — would edge women workers closer to pay parity.

Sarah Halzack is a reporter and Web editor for Capital Business. She covers the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. Previously, she was a Web producer for the Post's daily business and economic news section. She occasionally writes for other sections at the Post, most frequently in the form of dance reviews, dance features, book reviews and obituaries.
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