Uncle Sam Has Shrunk the Gender Pay Gap Over the Past 20 Years

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The federal government has narrowed the gender pay gap by 17 cents on the dollar among its employees over the past two decades, with women earning 87 cents for every dollar a man earned in 2012, according to a new study.

The pay disparity was even smaller among federal managers and senior executives, the Office of Personnel Management found. The gap was less than 5 cents on the dollar for supervisors and less than 1 cent on the dollar for women in the Senior Executive Service. Still, there are fewer women holding the top jobs in government: Women make up about one-third of the SES.

“We won’t be satisfied until women working in federal jobs earn the same as their male counterparts, at every level,” said OPM Director Katherine Archuleta, in a blog post on the agency’s website. OPM reviewed 37 white-collar federal job categories for the years 1992, 2002 and 2012, receiving responses from 51 agencies. During that time period, the gender pay gap shrunk from 30 percent to 13 percent for white-collar jobs and to 11 percent for General Schedule-only positions.

“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,” the report noted.

Other factors that may have contributed to the existing gap include women’s starting salaries in government, which tend to lag behind men’s by 10 percent on average, according to the study. “Women are overrepresented in occupations with lower maximum salaries and underrepresented in higher-paying occupations, including STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-related fields,” the study found.

OPM attributed the decrease in the pay gap in part to more women working in professional jobs now than in the early 1990s, and more highly-educated women in the federal workforce. The federal government also appears to have benefited from its foundation in merit system principles and the classification standards program for GS positions established by the 1949 Classification Act.

Overall, U.S. women currently earn about 81 cents on the dollar compared to men, according to the Labor Department.

The report comes days after President Obama signed two executive orders aimed at closing the gender pay gap in all sectors of the workforce. The first executive order will protect a federal contractor’s right to discuss their pay openly with coworkers. The order will prohibit an employer contracted by the federal government from retaliating against employees who disclose their pay

The second order will enable the government to better track pay information based on race and gender. Obama will direct Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to create regulations that require federal contractors to collect and submit this information, which the agency could then use to enforce existing laws.

The OPM study of the federal workforce also found that the gender pay gap was smaller among younger federal employees. And in all three study years, women received more promotions than men on a percentage basis. In 15 of the 37 occupational groups reviewed, the female average salary exceeded the male average salary.

OPM listed several recommendations and plans of action for decreasing the wage gap and helping more women get into the pipeline for top-paying government jobs, including promoting greater salary transparency for pay scales outside the GS system. OPM said it “strongly encourages agencies with independent authority to establish salary tables or rate ranges to post such salary tables or rate ranges on their public websites with appropriate contact information.” Other steps include working with agencies to review their pay classification systems and helping them conduct their own gender pay analyses to decrease wage disparities.

Obama in May 2013 asked OPM to conduct the study looking at differences in pay among the genders as part of an effort to make the federal government a model of pay equity for the rest of the American workforce.

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