Closing the gender wage gap at the federal level

Women, like men only cheaperThe federal wage gap is slightly better than the gap for all employees in the US – federally employed women earn 89 cents for every dollar men earn, instead of 77 cents. I know, winning!

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released a joint memorandum Tuesday committing to “ensure the most rigorous possible enforcement of our federal equal pay laws,” as the Washington Post reports.

Representatives from EEOC and OPM are working with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) “to identify the reasons for this wage gap and ways to close it.” The GAO says 7 cents of the 11 cent wage gap still can’t be explained after controlling for factors like occupation, experience and education levels. So we’re talking about plain old gender discrimination in federal employment, even when we factor out the different careers men and women are socialized to pursue as well as discrimination in school and past job opportunities.

A focus on closing the federal gender wage gap could be a huge win in a number of ways. Obviously female federal employees stand to benefit, but so do private sector workers if companies learn from the government’s example.

While the Obama administration has been criticized for slow action on a lot of key progressive issues related to gender and sexuality, they have moved government agencies to take positive actions for federal employees. These wins, like new guidelines protecting transgender federal employees, are less flashy than overturning DOMA or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but certainly important. A focus on equal pay by the federal government is another victory.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • Matthew T. Jameson

    “The GAO says 7 cents of the 11 cent wage gap still can’t be explained after controlling for factors like occupation, experience and education levels. So we’re talking about plain old gender discrimination in federal employment, even when we factor out the different careers men and women are socialized to pursue as well as discrimination in school and past job opportunities.”

    Controlling for certain demographic variables like that does not seem to justify saying that the uncontrolled, 7% difference must be discrimination. There are many, many, socially acceptable forms of discrimination, such as paying someone more for working longer hours, evidence of productivity (publications, commissions, and many other possible factors), time in a particular job, etc., etc., etc.. A more accurate statement would be that gender discrimination accounts for NO MORE THAN 7%\, since that is all that remains when controlling for the standard factors.

  • Becca

    This is interesting to me, because I am wondering how a wage gap even happens in federal employment once you control for occupation and experience. In my part of the gov’t, everyone in my occupational series is under the same job title and our grade can be from GS-7 to GS-13. Promotions both within grade (called step increases) and each grade increase are done formula-like based entirely on time in service. The time period between grade increases are determined by occupation type (e.g. every engineer is on the same schedule for grade increases). Most people in my job type “top out” at a GS-13 after about 6 years, after that you just get your step increases based on service time. There is no way for gender bias to ever enter in this scenario. On the downside, there is also really no way to reward good performance or punish bad performance. (Technically, a grade increase can be blocked due to non-performance, but I have never heard of that happening, it would have to be pretty bad. Also a step increase may be given as an award, however the number of those available are EXTREMELY small and the dollar value so low, even if every single one of them was given to men, it couldn’t possibly account for a 10% wage gap).

  • Joseph Martin

    Matthew – While I agree that saying 7 cents (not 7% of variance) of disparity is due to discrimination is overstepping the implications of the statistics, your choice of phrasing could also be used to downplay the influence of discrimination. That is to say, “whatever, its not that significant, its only 7 cents, at most!”

    We also have to consider the influence of a sort of ecological fallacy. If we keep stacking more and more potential covariates, we will eventually be able to find that there’s no room for discrimination to influence the disparity at all. Of course, that won’t be an honest interpretation of the data.

    So, while I agree with the time on the job numbers needing to be included, (and an interest in what they mean by “experience”), I also have to say that there has to be a limit to how many confounder are considered. I’m not keen on trusting these stats, for other reasons based on a the sampling used, but I also am wary at your rephrasing for the reasons I’ve described.

    • Matthew T. Jameson

      If you keep adding covariates and finding that all the variation is explained by ostensibly socially acceptable forms of discrimination, we are hard-pressed to keep repeating the argument that some of the variation MUST be due to sexism. Your letting theory (really, paradigmatic assumptions) trump data if you simply decide not to trust findings that show no evidence of discrimination based on gender.

      Obviously, I don’t believe this is very likely (because I believe sexism is real and accounts for at least SOME of the wage gap). However, this particular data set is relatively small and heavily controlled by government pay grades and other factors that should limit the amount of gender-based discrimination in pay. So, it would not be terribly shocking to find that, when all the covariates are accounted for, there remains very little variance that is uncontrolled (i.e. attributable to unacceptable forms of discrimination). For us to assume gender discrimination that is not shown in the data is letting theory, rather than data, dictate how we view the world. How do we expect to be taken seriously as social scientists if we are willing to do that?

      • Matthew T. Jameson

        And that last point, by the way, is why I brought this up in the first place: I’m not trying to downplay gender-based discrimination in this or any other data set. Rather, I’m trying to introduce some critical reasoning about how we interpret findings like this. I worry that nobody takes statistics on gender-based wage gaps seriously in part because we (speaking broadly about feminists) are so quick to trot out the “77 cents on the dollar” statistic, only to have it torn apart when further analyses demonstrate that much of that gap is attributable to factors other than sexism. This hurts feminism’s credibility and needs to be presented more critically if we expect to be taken seriously.