Here’s One Place Where The Gender Wage Gap Is Actually Shrinking

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Across the American population, progress on closing the gender wage gap has stalled for a decade, leaving women making about 77 percent of what men make when they both work full-time, year-round. But among the federal workforce, the gap has fallen significantly, according to a new report from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

In May of last year, President Obama signed a memorandum that directed OPM to submit a governmentwide strategy to address the gender pay gap among federal workers. As part of that, OPM also analyzed what gap exists. It found that over the decade between 1992 and 2012, “the gender pay gap has dramatically shrunk,” falling from about 30 percent to 13 percent for all white collar workers and 11 percent for just General Schedule workers.

One reason for the progress may be that wage transparency is far higher among public sector workers. Just 18 percent of women and 11 percent of men who work for the government say they are banned or discouraged from discussing their pay, compared to about 60 percent of private sector workers. On top of this, federal salary rates are public information and the system is highly structured, allowing workers to compare their pay to others and reducing the likelihood that individual bias will impact compensation.

The OPM study finds that what gap does exist among federal workers is in large part due to them being in different occupations. “In 2012, no other factor accounted for more than 10 percent of the explained portion of the gap,” or the part that can be attributed to factors such as age, education, veteran status, and others, the report notes. The agency was able to explain 70 percent of the gap with these factors overall, and more than three-quarters of that explanation came from occupational differences.

Yet the report does note, “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.” While the study found that during the decade it examined women went from a third to 45 percent of professional jobs, they make up just 36 percent of supervisors and managers and 33 percent of Senior Executive Service (SES) members. The pay gaps were incredibly narrow in those higher up jobs — female managers make 95.6 percent of what male ones do, while female SES members make 99.2 percent of men’s earnings — but more women are found in lower grade positions overall. That’s a problem that contributes to the overall gender wage gap: women make up two-thirds of minimum wage workers, for example, and the jobs women dominate pay less.

As in the general population, where economists found that more than 40 percent of the gender wage gap remains unexplained by various factors, OPM found that 20 percent of the gap was unexplained. “This unexplained portion could be attributable to factors that may or may not be discriminatory that were not accounted for in our analysis,” the authors write. But if there is any area where discrimination may crop up, it would be in that portion.

And there is some evidence in the OPM report that, even with such a small wage gap, some discrimination may be at work. Employers have the discretionary authority to set pay for new hires above the step 1 minimum rate, and this was used more frequently for men than women in 1992, 2002, and 2012. Starting salaries were also about 10 percent lower for women than men in 2012, and they were also lower in the other two time periods, although much of that difference is explained by women and men starting in different occupations. Yet women seemed to do well once they’re hired: they received “quality” pay increases based on outstanding performance more frequently than men in all three study years and were given promotions more frequently.