David M. Zaslav, president and chief executive of Discovery Communications, tops both the area and nation’s 2014 compensation list at $156 million. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

Washington-area chief executives received a median pay raise of 21.4 percent last year, and Discovery Communications’ David M. Zaslav topped the compensation list — both locally and for the entire United States — earning an eye-popping $156.1 million.

The region had 15 executives who took home more than $10 million in pay for the year, which includes cash, stock, bonuses and other payouts. By comparison, Chicago had 22 CEOs who exceeded $10 million in compensation for 2014.

The analysis was done by Equilar, an executive compensation solutions company. The 2015 Washington Post/Equilar CEO Compensation Study put median pay at $3.8 million for area chief executives.

The rise in pay came in a year when many companies had to adjust to a slowdown in federal spending, which has left the region’s economy lagging behind the economies of most other major metropolitan areas. The big numbers also are making news as executive compensation and wage growth take a prominent role in the 2016 presidential election.

The Washington Post and Equilar have prepared a report analyzing the annual pay of CEOs at the area’s largest public companies. Here’s how the numbers break down.

“It’s pretty over the top,” said Heather Slavkin Corzo, director of the office of investment at labor organization AFL-CIO. “We are having a conversation in this country. People are worried about raising wages and about income inequality, and what we see here is the CEOs of the big corporations have taken the raising wages agenda and have applied it only to themselves.”

Women had three of the region’s seven biggest pay packages.

United Therapeutics chief executive Martine A. Rothblatt, who topped the 2014 list, was second this year with $31.6 million. She agreed to sharply cut her compensation in December after shareholders voted against the pay package in an advisory vote earlier in the year.

After Zaslav and Rothblatt, the next-biggest earner was Michael J. Saylor, chief executive of MicroStrategy, a Tysons Corner-based data analytics company. Saylor’s package came in a year when one major shareholder called on him to give up the CEO job, citing the lagging price of MicroStrategy stock. He suggested Saylor’s extravagant private life had become a distraction. The company disagreed with that assessment, calling Saylor a technology visionary.

Saylor, who owns more than 50 percent of voting shares, earned $24.1 million last year, the vast majority of which — $21.7 million — was equity. Saylor’s cash compensation was $583,000 in 2014, but last September he asked that his annual base salary be reduced to $1 and that his incentive cash bonus arrangement be eliminated.

“These changes were made in connection with the Company’s restructuring efforts and cost reduction initiatives that were announced in the second half of 2014,” the company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Women claimed the No. 6 and No. 7 spots on the compensation list, with General Dynamics’
Phebe N. Novakovic taking in
$19 million and Marillyn A. Hewson, chief executive of Lockheed Martin, earning $17.9 million, according to the analysis.

United Therapies chief executive Martine A. Rothblatt, who topped last year’s list, was second in 2014 at $31.6 million. (Andre Chung for The Washington Post)

“The D.C.-Virginia area has some of the highest-paid women as CEOs in the country,” said Aaron Boyd, director of governance research at Equilar. “The two big ones are due to the fact that you have two big defense contractors and two female CEOs.”

Although Zaslav’s $156 million in one year appears breathtaking at first, much of the money is tied up in stock he can’t cash in for years. The SEC required Zaslav to declare all of it as income in 2014, when he signed a new, six-year deal with Discovery.

Discovery Communications declined to comment on the arrangement, but in an SEC filing outlining the pay package, the company said, “Over the course of his tenure as CEO for the last seven years, Mr. Zaslav has done an outstanding job leading Discovery. He has driven our strong financial performance, created significant shareholder value and ultimately transformed the Company into a global leader in pay television.”

The Zaslav contract includes a one-time, front-loaded equity grant in which Zaslav does well only if the shareholders do well. To ensure that Zaslav “eats his own cooking,” as they say on Wall Street, he must hold on to 60 percent of his shares through 2019.

Derek Hostmeyer, assistant professor of finance at the George Mason University School of Business, said he is pleased to see that more corporations are paying executives with direct stock awards, which he said better balances them with the interests of their shareholders than stock options do. “With options, if you miss every [goal], you walk away with zero,” he said. “With restricted stock, the CEO can actually lose money. That aligns the CEO with shareholders.”

The 21.4 percent median pay increase for local CEOs is a bigger increase than that for chief executives in the Standard & Poor’s 500, which rose 0.8 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to Equilar.

“The pay is going up and has gone up each year for the past four or five years, but it’s not going up quite as much as it has in previous years,” said Equilar’s Boyd. “I think it’s up there with the San Francisco Bay area, New York and probably Chicago.”

If you look at straight salary, Zaslav is tops there, as well, earning $3 million.

Other top salaries, which do not include bonus, equity or retirement payouts, include George J. Pedersen of ManTech International at $1.7 million.

Coming in around $1.5 million are Lockheed Martin’s Hewson, American Capital’s Malon Wilkus, General Dynamics’ Novakovic and Northrop Grumman’s Wesley G. Bush.

Several of the world’s biggest hotel chains are in Washington, and those chief executives received compensation for competing on that stage. Arne M. Sorenson of Marriott International took in $14.8 million; Christopher J. Nassetta of Hilton Worldwide earned $9.9 million; W. Edward Walter of Host Hotels & Resorts made $7.5 million; and Stephen P. Joyce of Choice Hotels International received $5.3 million.

The AFL-CIO’s Slavkin Corzo said the upward executive compensation spiral has left workers behind.

“I don’t have an answer to what is enough,” she said. “I know that the people I work with have very big jobs and make a small fraction of what these [CEOs] are making. People should feel motivated to do the work they are doing because they believe in the work.”

Charles Elson, a professor of finance at the University of Delaware and the director of the school’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, said executive compensation, until now, has had a built-in escalator. CEO pay, he said, is often based on what peer CEOs are making.

“The reason you use peers is you are afraid your CEO will move to a peer company,” he said.

“The problem is that it is predicated on the assumption that CEOs can move. But what we discovered empirically is they cannot and don’t [move].

“Boards will target pay generally at the median or higher, but never below the median. So what then happens is, you create a ratcheting effect where pay spirals upward based on the math.”

And if you pay below the median?

“You probably need a new CEO,” Elson said.