The Washington Post

Report shows closing federal gender pay gap, while women remain too few in top ranks


Uncle Sam’s gender pay gap is not nearly as bad as it used to be, but what remains demonstrates the difficult nature of the problem.

The pay gap between male and female federal employees, with men in the better position, “has dramatically shrunk,” says a report issued Friday by the Office of Personnel Management.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

From 1992 to 2012, the OPM found, the gap fell from about 30 percent to 13 percent for federal white-collar positions.

“According to our comprehensive, in-depth review of 37 white-collar Federal job categories, in 2012, women were paid 87 cents for every dollar that a man was paid,” OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said in a blog post. “In 1992, women in the Federal workforce made just 70 cents on the dollar.”

Those statistics, however, fail to reveal a more complex picture.

Diving deeper, the OPM found that in some cases there was a pay gap in favor of women. Sometimes the data indicate near-parity. The big issue, however, appears to be a lack of women in high places.

Women hold only about one-third of the Senior Executive Service (SES) positions and not much more of the top General Schedule slots, GS14 and GS15.

“That’s a number that needs to grow,” Archuleta said.

“For starters, we need to address the imbalance of hiring in all occupations. . . . That’s why we have made it a top priority to mentor women who hold GS14 and GS15 positions to advance into SES jobs.”

Agencies must build stronger employment and promotion pipelines for women, improve salary transparency and simply obey the law, Archuleta said. “We won’t be satisfied until women working in federal jobs earn the same as their male counterparts, at every level.”

Janet Kopenhaver, Washington representative of Federally Employed Women, said that although her organization “appreciates any and all efforts to close the pay gap between men and women, we have been much more concerned [about] the inability of women to be adequately represented at the GS14, GS15 and SES levels in the government. This is really the ‘pay’ problem in the federal government — women face many hurdles in getting into the higher-paying jobs.”

The wage gap is narrow for men and women in the top ranks, but the small number of women there feeds the overall pay disparity. Women in senior executive leadership roles were paid 99.2 cents for every dollar men earned in 2012. For supervisors and managers, it was 95.6 cents.

Not perfect, but certainly very good from a historical perspective.

“Twenty years ago, the gender gap between men and women employed by the federal government mirrored the national gap,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Federal women “have made considerably more progress than women nationally,” she added. “The real progress for women in the federal government shows that this pay gap can be closed.”

Yet, across occupational lines, women suffer from a 10 percent lower average starting salary than men. That raises a question: Why, in the OPM’s words, do “women tend to be overrepresented in occupations with lower maximum salaries and underrepresented in higher-paying occupations, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-related fields.”

Nowhere in the report, which was delivered five months after its due date, is sexism mentioned.

But the report does make references to possible discrimination, without saying that the government is guilty of such a thing.

“While occupational distribution explains much of the pay gap, we are not ruling out the possibility that discriminatory influences played a role in occupational distribution” is about as accusatory as the OPM gets.

Sexism, however, probably is less of a factor in government than it is in the private sector, “perhaps because of the merit principles which undergird government hiring and promotions,” Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said in an e-mail.

Bonosaro said the lack of equal SES representation could be because of “the demands of home and children (and no Federal family leave policy), as well as remnants of sex bias . . . and at least some women’s reluctance to toot their own horns and be aggressive about seeking opportunities.

“And, after all these years, there has not been a concerted effort to focus on improving the representation of women; I hasten to add that efforts to improve minority representation have fallen short as well.”

Bonosaro makes a good point. The OPM also should investigate the lack of employees of color in the government’s top ranks. It’s a real problem.

Whatever the reasons for the lack of women in top slots, it’s changing, albeit not quickly enough.

Sylvia Stewart, a 27-year Environmental Protection Agency employee from Greenbelt, said she sees more women in executive positions that men once dominated.

“It’s still more men now, but it seems like the gap is closing fast,” she said.

Speaking generally about the federal workforce, Sharon Whitehair, a 28-year EPA worker from Upper Marlboro, said “the number of women coming in is tremendous.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Josh Hicks contributed to this report.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at

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