Bringing the Economy Home

The Gender Pay Gap In Idaho’s State Workforce: Why Do Women Earn Less?

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Two women work on an airplane, circa 1950.

Year after year, Idaho gets slapped with an unwelcome designation: It’s one of the states where women earn the least compared to men.

A recent study of the “gender wage gap” came from the National Women’s Law Center, and found the typical woman worker in Idaho earns 75.2 cents for every dollar earned by her male counterpart.

The gender wage gap has also been an issue at the top levels of state government. Last March, the Idaho Statesman found that women in Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s cabinet earned an average of $17,000 less than their male peers.  Following the firing of state transportation chief Pam Lowe in 2009, it was widely noted that the man who replaced her had a starting salary that was $22,000 higher.

When it comes to rank-and-file government workers, the situation is more complicated. This month, the office that handles human resources for Idaho’s state employees released a report on it. Looking at “classified” employees – a group that makes up about 60 percent of full-time state workers – the report found no statistical evidence of salary discrimination against women who work for the state.

According to the report, classified female employees earn, on average, 88 cents for every dollar earned by classified male employees. Following a more detailed analysis that accounts for the skills and responsibilities required by different kinds of state jobs, the report concluded that Idaho meets the legal standard: Women and men receive equal pay for equal work.

This is a subject we at StateImpact Idaho have been interested in for a long time. A few months ago, we obtained from the Office of the State Controller wage and demographic data for the more than 19,000 Idahoans who make up the state’s full-time workforce. We also got data on how long those employees have worked for the state.

Our analysis of this data doesn’t dispute the state’s conclusion that women and men receive equal pay for equal work.  But it does add a few dimensions to understanding how gender pay dynamics play out in the state bureaucracy.  Here are three things we learned from looking at the numbers.

1. The pay gap between men and women widens over time

At the start of their careers, male and female state workers’ earnings are almost equivalent.  Female state workers with up to five years of experience earn 95 cents on the dollar earned by male workers in the same experience range.

That very small gap widens with time. Women with between five and 10 years of experience earn 89 percent of the amount earned by men in that experience bracket.

Among workers who have spent decades working for the state, pay differences along gender lines become stark. Female state employees who have spent 20 to 25 years working for the State of Idaho earn 81 cents for every dollar earned by men who have spent a similar number of hours on the job. It amounts to a nearly $11,000 annual pay difference. All of this can be seen in the graph below.

We shared this graph with Katherine Gallagher Robbins of the National Women’s Law Center. She says the smaller wage gap that we see in the early years is characteristic of such analyses.  In these years, she points out, key changes are still ahead.

“Many of these people will go on to be parents,” she says. “The responsibilities for children will disproportionately fall on women, and impact their careers.”  Moreover, she points out, most workers are in entry-level positions in those early years of work.  “You haven’t seen over-time buildup of getting passed over for promotions, or not getting the opportunity to move forward,” she says.

Data Source: Office of the State Controller

About this graph: The Idaho state controller’s office provided wage and demographic data for all of the state’s more than 19,000 full-time employees, along with employees’ hours of service.  StateImpact Idaho computed years of service, and categorized employees according to five-year “experience ranges.” The numbers on this graph’s horizontal axis are the upper limit of those experience ranges. For example, the first column of workers is those with up to (but not including) five years of experience. The second column includes workers with five to 10 years of experience, and so on.

It would be interesting to break this graph down by agency. That would let us ask: Do some state agencies show wider or narrower pay disparities than others?  Unfortunately, that’s a question we can’t answer. Because of a provision of Idaho’s public records act, the state cannot release employee records that include demographic data and are also categorized by agency.

2. Men and women in similar fields and job titles can expect equal pay

What is possible is to evaluate the data through the lens of the state’s pay grades. More than 12,000 of the state’s full-time workers fall into the state’s pay grade system. Most are the “classified” employees referenced in the state human resources report. These employees are subject to the state’s recruitment, promotion and merit pay systems.

Each of them falls into one of 19 different pay grades, which correspond to different salary ranges. For example, say you’re an archaeologist working for the state. In that case, you’re in the K pay grade, and you’ll earn somewhere between $34,507 and $63,461 each year.

By comparing the earnings of male and female classified workers within the 19 different pay grades, we can size up pay equity among workers whose jobs are perceived to merit similar salaries. You can see how this plays out in the graph below.

Data Source: Office of the State Controller

About Idaho’s Pay Grades

Idaho’s 19 pay grades are organized alphabetically, D through V. Grade D pays the least — as little as $15,080 annually — and currently holds no employees.  Grade V pays the most — as much as $213,075 — and contains seven people.

It’s the Idaho Division of Human Resources’ job to assign job titles to pay grades. To do that, the division employs a widely used proprietary job evaluation system called the Hay Group method.  The point system takes three things into account: the know-how, problem solving, and accountability involved in performing each position. In other words, the system is designed to size up jobs, not the employees who do them.

Factors like an employee’s experience, performance and educational background are taken into consideration by agency supervisors, and can affect where employees fall within the pay range associated with a pay grade.

If you look at this and think it’s a mishmash, you’re right. In some pay grades, women earn slightly more than men. In others, men earn slightly more than women.

The data show that in most cases where men earn more than women, they also have more work experience. The same is true in most pay grades in which women are the ones earning more: They have tallied more years on the job.

In other words, our findings match those of Idaho’s human resources division. The data don’t show systematic pay disparities along gender lines among workers whose jobs are believed to require similar levels of responsibility and skill and deserve similar wages. But there’s something more to observe.

3. More women than men are in lower-paying jobs.

Women far outnumber men in a number of the lower-paid pay grades. In fact, there are 40 percent more women than men in the pay grades that pay the least.

Meanwhile, there are more than twice as many men as women in the pay grades that pay the most.

We can better understand what’s happening by looking at what’s going on within individual pay grades. The G and H pay grades are at the low end of the salary spectrum.  And they’re huge: Together, they include more than 2,500 workers, two-thirds of whom are women.   The workers are assigned to 120 different job titles, ranging from “arborist” to “maintenance craftsman” to “administrative assistant 1.”

That single job title — administrative assistant 1 — helps to explain why the number of women substantially outweighs the number of men in these pay grades.  According to the state Division of Human Resources, of the state’s 444 employees with that title, 424 are women.

A different story is playing out in the higher-paying O and P grades, which contain more than twice as many men as women.  There, the job titles tend to describe specific supervisory positions, like “state fishery manager,” “chief of children’s mental health” and “Division of Financial Management chief economist.” Many of the jobs are in science, engineering, medicine, or finance.

Data Source: Office of the State Controller

Idaho Division of Human Resources Administrator Vicki Tokita says the concentration of female state employees at the lower end of the pay scale does not demonstrate that those workers face a glass ceiling. Rather, she says, it’s a product of the family and career choices that women workers have made. She believes that as those choices shift and women pursue careers in historically male-dominated fields, the pay gap will begin to break down.

In the meantime, she says, there’s only so much the state can do.  “From the state perspective, I’m not sure how much influence we have over an individual’s decision to go into different careers,” she says.  “I’m not sure how agencies could have influence on individual employees’ decisions, as far as careers. As far as, ‘Don’t stay home with your kids.'”

Donna Yule, the director of the Idaho Public Employees Association (IPEA), the labor organization for state employees, says complaints about gender discrimination in promotion decisions represent a small fraction of those she receives from the association’s roughly 1,000 members.  “I’ve been here four years,” she says. “I’ve probably had four or five of those.”

What we still don’t know

While the state of Idaho meets the “equal pay for equal work” standard in classified employee compensation, it’s worth remembering that classified employees represent only about 60 percent of full-time state workers. Many state college and university employees do not fall within that group. Nor do employees of the attorney general’s office, state judiciary or insurance fund.

There is greater latitude for disparate earnings among non-classified than classified employees. But “equal pay for equal work” is much trickier to assess in the non-classified group. Among that 40 percent of full-time state workers, there’s no simple way to evaluate whether the state of Idaho is or is not meeting the “equal pay” standard.


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