By Hyejin Kang /

The Federal Gender Pay Gap Is Shrinking, But the Remaining Disparity May Be the Hardest to Eliminate

Although the gap between men and women at federal agencies has fallen from 19 cents on the dollar in 1999 to 7 cents in 2017, the vast majority of the remaining salary discrepancy is “unexplained,” watchdog finds.

A government watchdog agency last week announced that the gender pay gap in the federal government has improved significantly over the last two decades, but warned that agencies must improve their data collection to continue to make progress.

The Government Accountability Office found that the overall pay disparity between men and women fell significantly between 1999 and 2017. While women made on average 19 cents on the dollar less than their male counterparts in 1999, that figure fell to 7 cents on the dollar in 2017.

GAO auditors chalked up the improvement in pay equity to a number of factors. First, as federal agencies continued to move away from clerical work and toward so-called “professional” occupations, more women were hired into higher-paying jobs. The percentage of women with college degrees in federal jobs increased “considerably,” and men and women have, on average, the same amount of federal work experience, something that was not true 20 years ago.

“In addition, the continued narrowing of the overall gender pay gap may also be partly explained by women earning slightly higher rates of pay increases than men over time,” GAO wrote. “Pay increases under the General Schedule system, which covers the majority of federal workers, include increases due to performance—such as step increases and promotions—as well as the total annual pay adjustment that federal workers often receive. We found that from 1999 to 2017, women earned slightly higher rates of pay increases than men in almost all years.”

While the federal government’s success in reducing the gender pay gap has been sizeable in recent years, the remaining 7% disparity could prove more difficult to rectify, GAO said. At issue is that there are two elements within the pay disparity as measured by the agency: the explained gap, which is made up of factors like differences in occupation, education, experience, veteran status, and race and ethnicity, and the unexplained gap.

Between 1999 and 2017, the explained pay gap decreased from 11 cents on the dollar to 1 cent, while the unexplained gap only fell from 8 cents to 6 cents. GAO wrote that in order to reduce the unexplained gap, agencies will need better data from the Office of Personnel Management and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing that in many cases, data analyzing promotion rates by gender, race and ethnicity has been incomplete or missing.

“In some cases, agencies did not submit any promotion data [to EEOC],” GAO wrote. “We found that 22 of the expected 51 data tables were missing. In other cases, agencies submitted incomplete promotion data. For example, some agencies reported the number of applicants selected for promotion, but did not report the numbers who applied for promotion or who were deemed qualified for promotion. Other agencies reported the total number of applicants, but did not report any demographic information . . . for those applicants.”

GAO recommended that EEOC improve its collection of agency promotion data, although the agency “neither agreed nor disagreed” with the suggestion. In an apparent break from common practice, EEOC officials did not include their own written comments in the report.