Women Still Underrepresented in the Highest-Paid Federal Jobs

The situation has improved over the past decade, but it remains the case that the more a job pays, the more likely it is to be filled by a man.

A significant number of women have climbed the career ladder to better paying federal jobs over the last decade, but men still occupy a disproportionate number of the most lucrative executive branch positions, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management.

As of March 2017, men made up 53.7 percent of the federal workforce, but held 66.3 percent of the jobs paying $150,000 or more, an analysis by Government Executive found. There was a positive correlation between income level and male representation in every Cabinet-level agency.

The analysis used data from OPM’s FedScope portal and broke down the more than 1.7 million white-collar employees working at Cabinet agencies by department, income and gender. Income was divided into eighteen $10,000 brackets; the lowest bracket made less than $20,000 per year, and the highest made more than $180,000. Government Executive then calculated the gender ratio for each income bracket in every agency.

Across the government, a $10,000 increase in income was coupled with a 1.9 percentage point increase in male representation. In other words, the percentage of women in a given income bracket decreased by about two points for every bracket climbed.

A 1.9 point increase in gender disparity for every income level may not seem like much, but it adds up. Women made up roughly two-thirds of the employees in the lowest income bracket, but only about one-third of the highest-earning group.

In 2014, OPM published a report revealing that agencies had closed the pay gap between men and women by more than half between 1992 and 2012, meaning equal pay for equal work has become more of a reality in the federal government. Researchers attribute most of the remaining gap to occupational differences, but OPM has not fully identified the underlying reasons for why women are underrepresented in higher-paying jobs, an agency spokesperson said.

Zina Sutch, director of diversity and inclusion at OPM, noted the benefits of a diverse workforce, but declined to comment on the results of Government Executive’s analysis. “A diverse and inclusive workforce has been positively associated with greater talent utilization, better employee retention, increased innovation and higher performance,” Sutch said.

Creating a more inclusive culture takes time, whether in government or any other industry, said Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association. He said workforce diversity and income equality have improved in recent decades, but women in government still tell SEA they are stereotyped, judged based on appearance and sexually harassed. In other words, the income disparity in government may be rooted in the same factors that keep many women out of top jobs in business, science, law and other fields.

“I think it’s a natural consequence of the male-dominated society that we live in,” Valdez said. “It’s not a problem unique to the federal government. But the federal government has special responsibility to have a workforce that represents America, so it is worrisome.“

Valdez said agencies and employees are well aware of the gender-pay disparity issue and are working to continue improving the situation through diversity training and other leadership programs.

The relationship between income and gender is far more pronounced in some agencies than others. The Education Department, where women make up more than 62 percent of the workforce, had the least inequality in representation by pay level as of March. The proportion of men increased by less than a percentage point for every income bracket with a weak correlation between pay and gender.

In contrast, women hold almost half the positions in the Defense Department, but most of the top jobs are reserved for men. For every $10,000 increase, the proportion of men went up by 2.9 percentage points, with a strong positive correlation. Men made up 24.3 percent of the bottom two pay brackets and 70.8 percent of the top two groups at Defense. Breaking the data by branch, the Air Force and Army showed similar trends to Defense as a whole, while the Navy had less disparity, with a 1.9 percentage point average increase in men per bracket.

Though it is not necessarily shocking that most top Pentagon officials are men, a number of civilian agencies had similarly pronounced gender differences. Commerce and Treasury, for instance, had disparity increases significantly above the government average and showed very strong correlations between gender and income.

The gender breakdown of the Commerce Department’s workforce mirrors the overall makeup of the government, but the agency has a significantly higher income disparity between men and women. Going up one bracket resulted in a roughly 2.7 percentage point increase in male representation, according to Government Executive’s analysis.

At the Treasury Department, women outnumber men almost two to one, but few women find themselves in top-paying positions. The agency’s gender disparity increased by 2.4 percentage points per bracket. Women made up 74.8 percent of the bottom bracket and 43.5 percent of the top four groups.

Though the government has a ways to go in increasing women’s representation in top-paying positions, it’s come a long way over the last decade. In September 2007, the governmentwide gender disparity increased by more than 2.6 percentage points per income bracket. Women made up 59 percent of the people earning less than $50,000 per year, and 24.7 percent of those with an annual income of $150,000 or more.

Breaking down the 2007 data by agency revealed even more dramatic relationships between gender and income.


The Defense Department showed the greatest disparity in 2007, with the proportion of men increasing 4.4 percentage points with each income bracket. Four civilian agencies in 2007 showed disparity increases higher than 3 percentage points (which was the highest agency disparity in 2017). The agencies where male representation increased by 3 points for every income bracket climbed in 2007 were the: Housing and Urban Development Department and Treasury Department at 3.2 percentage points, the State Department at 3.5 points and the Energy Department at 4.1 points. By 2017, the disparity improved to 1.6 points at HUD, 2.4 points at Treasury, 1.7 points at State and 1.9 points at Energy.

Overall, the gender distribution across income brackets has greatly improved during the last decade. At almost every agency, a larger proportion of women found themselves in higher-paying jobs in 2017 than in 2007, and the gender ratio has grown increasingly equal in lower income brackets as well.

Under the Obama administration, OPM took a number of steps aimed at closing the gender pay gap, such as putting less emphasis on job applicants’ current salary when determining their new federal pay if they are hired. In 2013, President Obama also mandated that agencies conduct a full review of their pay and promotion policies and asked OPM to issue a “governmentwide strategy to address any gender pay gap in the federal workforce.”

OPM issued additional guidance on closing the government’s gender pay gap in 2015, but declined to comment on any additional steps being taken to continue the progress under the new administration.

A note on methodology: Government Executive calculated the relationship between gender and income using linear regression. The analysis only included income groups with data available for both men and women, and didn’t account for people who chose not to specify their gender or salary. Click here to download the complete data and regression results for each agency.