Beth Cobert, acting OPM director (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

The new woman at the helm of the federal personnel office is wasting no time trying to fix a still-nagging pay gap between men and women in government.

To wit: Beth Cobert told senior leaders across government last week that what a woman made before coming to government should not be the basis for setting her pay as a new federal employee.

This breakthrough policy means that if a woman has a relatively low salary because she was raising children — or has been paid less than she’s worth outside government for comparable work to a man — that disparity should not be held against her. If she’s qualified for the job, she should be paid what it’s worth.

[Women make almost 13 percent less than men in federal jobs]

The new policy comes 16 months after the Office of Personnel Management found that women in government still made 12.7 percent less overall than men in 2012.

Cobert, acting OPM director, wrote this candid assessment of the government’s pay policy until now in a July 30 memo to hiring managers:

“….We found that some agencies require the use of a job candidate’s existing salary or that existing salary must be considered when setting pay of a new General Schedule employee. Reliance on existing salary to set pay could potentially adversely affect a candidate who is returning to the workplace after having taken extended time off from his or her career or for whom an existing rate of pay is not reflective of the candidate’s current qualifications or existing labor market conditions.”

Things have certainly improved for federal women since 1992, when they earned 30 percent less than men in similar jobs, and from 2002, when they made 19.8 percent less, OPM found last year. A large part of the reason is that even though fewer women are doing low-paid clerical work, many still are concentrated in lower-paying jobs with too few occupying the top ranks of government.

For example, women make up only about a third of senior leaders and are underrepresented in higher-paying science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

One of the 2014 study’s startling findings was that agencies use special authorities to set higher starting salaries when hiring men more often than when hiring women.

That needs to change, Cobert wrote as she clarified how hiring managers must now set starting salaries for women. What women made before getting hired “is only one factor an agency may use when setting pay…”

Equally important to starting salary is “whether the candidate has superior qualifications, whether the agency has a special need for the candidate’s services, and the full range of factors to consider when setting pay beyond existing salary.”

Cobert urged agencies to address the imbalance in hiring in all occupations by collecting data on GS levels by gender, reviewing how hiring managers classify jobs for pay-setting and publicly posting the salary rates of pay systems at every agency.