The ‘unexplained’ reasons female feds make less money


The last 20 years has seen the pay gap between male and female federal employees shrink considerably, as women made generally 19 cents less per dollar than men in 1999 but made just 7 cents less in 2017.

But according to a Government Accountability Office report released Dec. 3, most of the existing pay gap between male and female employees in the government is the result of “unexplained factors.”

“Prior research has found that the gender pay gap for federal workers is partly explained by differences between men and women in measurable factors that affect pay, such as occupation, education and experience. This is referred to as the explained pay gap. For example, in our 2009 report, we found that the pay gap was partly due to differences between men and women in the occupations they held, their levels of education and how long they had worked for the federal government,” the report said.

“We also identified other measurable factors that contributed to the explained gender pay gap, including race and ethnicity, federal agency, and veteran status. However, we found that a portion of the pay gap was not explained by differences between men and women in measurable factors that affect pay. This is referred to as the unexplained pay gap.”

Explainable factors used to make up a far larger proportion of the federal pay gap in 1999, representing 11 of the 19 cents differentiating male and female employees. As of 2017, explainable factors made up just 1 of the 7 cents, indicating that agencies have generally made substantial progress in addressing the known factors that impact pay equity.

Some of that improvement has also come down to the changing workforce trends in the government overall: women are far less likely to work in lower-wage clerical jobs and are instead moving to professional and administrative positions; the percentage of female feds with higher education increased dramatically; and men and women generally have the same amount of federal experience.

“We found that, in absolute terms, the explained pay gap between men and women in 2017 was mostly due to differences in whether they were veterans, the federal agencies where they worked, their race and ethnicity, and how long they had worked for the federal government,” the report said.

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“Specifically, as compared to white men, we found that the unexplained pay gap for Hispanic/Latina women, Black women, and American Indian or Alaska Native women ranged from 9 to 12 cents on the dollar, while it was smaller for white women (7 cents) and for Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander women (4 cents). In addition, the unexplained pay gap was generally greater for women with lower levels of education than for women with higher levels of education.”

The report also notes that just because a part of the gap is explainable, does not mean it is justified. Race or ethnicity may be used to statistically predict whether a woman earns less than a white male counterpart,but also indicates issues of discrimination.

And though the Office of Personnel Management may not have the necessary data to clarify the unexplained reasons for the gap, GAO posited that private-sector work experience and parental status — which are not tracked by OPM — may account for some of that difference.

Women with children may be more likely to take positions with lower pay but flexible work hours or to be passed over for promotion. And because the private sector has a worse track record than the federal government when it comes to equal pay, women who have worked in the private sector for a period of time may enter government service from a lower salary or seniority level than they would otherwise have if they were male.

“In 2018, the pay gap for federal workers was about 12 cents on the dollar, and the pay gap for the entire workforce was about 18 cents on the dollar, according to self-reported data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey,” the report said.

The unexplainable pay gap also tends to diminish when women make up a larger percentage of employees at an agency. The Department of Education’s workforce, for example, is 63 percent female and has an unexplained pay gap of only 2 cents, while the Department of Transportation’s workforce is 26 percent female and has an unexplained pay gap of 11 cents.

Available data also indicates that the gender pay gap is getting smaller for new feds. Half of all women hired after 2012 had a lower unexplained pay gap than the federal average, and all racial and ethnic groups had a smaller unexplained pay gap for new hires than the workforce average.

GAO recommended that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission take steps to address data quality and missing data in a timelier manner, to which the EEOC neither agreed nor disagreed.


Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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