Uncle Sam strives to be the model employer, and in at least one area, he’s making progress.
When it comes to equal pay for equal work, the federal government is significantly closer to that goal than the nation as a whole. Closing the gender pay gap has been the focus of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at two dozen events around the country in April and May.
Women in the federal government make 11 cents less on the dollar than their male counterparts, according to the most recent data available from the General Accountability Office. That gap is 11 cents too much, but it nonetheless compares favorably with the national gap, which is closer to 20 cents.
Speaking generally on Equal Pay Day, April 12, EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said, “The wage gap is even greater for women of color and women with disabilities.”
Of the 11 cents, the GAO said it could account for 4 cents “by differences in measurable factors such as the occupations of men and women and, to a lesser extent, other factors such as years of federal experience and level of education.”
Of course, those factors could also be affected by sexism.
The GAO added that the pay gap narrowed “as men and women in the federal workforce increasingly shared similar characteristics in terms of the jobs they held, their levels of experience, and educational attainment.”
The remaining 7 cents doesn’t sound like much, but day after day, year after year, every penny counts.
“What may start off as a relatively minor pay gap for women just entering the workforce can grow over the course of a woman’s work history, especially when it is accompanied by other forms of compensation discrimination, such as in payment of bonuses or contributions to retirement accounts,” Berrien said. “By the time of retirement, the real costs of the wage gap to a woman and her family is not just lost wages but also lowered pensions and Social Security benefits. This negative impact is even greater for single mothers and households where a woman is the primary wage-earner.”
Over time, “we’re talking about big dough,” Christine Griffin, deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management, told an EEOC forum last month.
In an interview, Griffin said the OPM, EEOC and other agencies are trying to determine whether another study of the federal pay gap is needed, in part because the GAO report was based on 2007 data and did not include the U.S. Postal Service.
Compared with such things as the federal pay freeze, the federal pay gap doesn’t draw much heat. “I’m not personally aware of any discrimination based on wages or gender,” said Tommye Grant, a 40-year State Department employee.
The General Schedule, the government’s highly structured job and pay classification system, gets much of the credit for keeping down gender-based pay disputes.
“The General Schedule ensures that the vast majority of federal employees — regardless of gender, age, race or other personal characteristics — are rewarded solely based on their performance, knowledge and experience,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
But the GS system is no guarantee against such pay bias. The EEOC has received about 40 pay-gap complaints in each of the past two fiscal years. In one complaint, an EEOC administrative judge found that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refused to promote a woman “from a GS-12 to a GS-13 even though it paid her male comparator at the GS-13 level for work that the AJ found to require equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions.”
Federal employee organizations don’t report receiving many complaints about gender-based pay, but, in some cases, the gap might be hidden by other issues.
“We get a lot of complaints about gender discrimination,” though not specifically related to pay, said Patricia Randle, a lawyer with the American Federation of Government Employees.
Those complaints cover bonuses and overtime, which are linked to pay, and they are more likely to come from agencies not under the GS system. “For those not under GS, there is more subjectivity,” Randle said.
Sexual harassment and differential treatment because of pregnancy are also problems, said Joanna Friedman, a lawyer with Tully Rinckey.
“The most common form of sex discrimination,” she said, “is likely the glass ceiling that still exists for women who are highly educated and professionally experienced but unable to compete and/or get selected for the top management positions that are typically filled by Caucasian men.”
Note to Uncle Sam: Women make up less than a third of the Senior Executive Service.