For 20 years, Maia Downs has worked at the California Department of Social Services as an adoptions specialist. She conducts psychosocial assessments, counsels at-risk families and prepares recommendations for the courts. She loves her job, believes in the mission.
Not infrequently, Downs wonders why, with all her responsibilities, her salary is less than professionals who perform the same work at the county level – or other state workers not required to have master’s degrees.
On Feb. 22, Downs, a member of AFSCME Local 2620, spoke at a legislative hearing on the gender wage gap in state civil service.
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Like women all over the world singing the a capella anthem about empowerment, Downs decided she “can’t keep quiet” anymore.
Joined by a registered dietician, a community care licensing analyst and a child nutrition consultant, they all asked: Why is the state undervaluing – and underpaying – our work?
After all, it’s been 35 years since a law took effect, Government Code Section 19827.2, which states: “… it is the intent of the Legislature … to establish a state policy of setting salaries for female-dominated jobs on the basis of comparability of the value of the work.”
In fact, California passed several laws in the 1980s intended to promote research and address inequities for undervalued pink-collar positions.
The February oversight hearing on gender pay and civil service was convened by two legislative committees and the women’s caucus.
Committee members reviewed a women’s earnings report required by 19827.2 to be submitted annually to the Legislature and the bargaining units that represent state workers.
Produced by the California Department of Human Resources, or CalHR, the report is an important read for many reasons – its findings, the recommendations it makes to remedy inequities, and the information and issues it neglects to address.
The major finding: The state of California’s civil service system had in 2014 a significant gender pay gap of 20.5 percent, which means that women working at the state full time made 79.5 percent of what men made.
That’s about the same as the gap found in the national workforce (20.1 percent) but higher than the gap found in federal civil service (11.9 percent) and the overall California workforce (15.9 percent).
Applying the rate of change from the past 25 years, CalHR projects that the gender wage gap among state civil service workers won’t be closed until 2089 – or 2044, using the 10-year trend.
Some good news: Compared to the U.S. and California workforces, the state employed more women in the higher-paying legal, management and STEM positions and in male-dominated fields of construction and maintenance.
Not-so-good news: Compared to the U.S. and California workforces, the state employed more women in lower-paying jobs like office and administrative support and food preparation and serving.
In the report and at the hearing, CalHR points to occupational segregation to explain the state’s persistent gender pay gap – lots of women in low-paying, pink-collar jobs and not enough women in high-paying, male-dominated jobs.
That’s why CalHR’s recommendations to step-up activities to recruit, retain and support the professional advancement of women make sense, as do proposals to encourage use of family-friendly benefits, like flextime, paid leave and job-sharing.
But occupational segregation is not the only reason for the state’s gender pay gap.
Underpaying workers in pink-collar jobs is another.
And even though private sector companies now regularly conduct pay equity studies, CalHR’s report fails to provide any analysis of the “setting of salaries for female-dominated jobs” on the “basis of comparability of the value of the work,” as required under 19827.2.
That law also cautions that “a failure to reassess the basis on which salaries in state service are established will perpetuate these pay inequities, which have a particularly discriminatory impact on minority and older women.”
Here’s the point that CalHR misses: Not all women aim to break through the glass ceiling. Many just want to break free from the sticky pink floor.
And while it’s laudable to endeavor to move more women into higher-paying jobs, it’s not OK to undervalue work in lower-paying positions.
State officials claim their modernization initiative, called Civil Service Improvement, will resolve gender pay inequities over time. But CSI doesn’t address the gender pay gap as required under 19827.2.
Furthermore, in interviews and in testimony at the hearing, CalHR deflected direct responsibility for pay equity adjustments, claiming they are bound by law to set salaries through the collective bargaining process.
But nothing precludes the state from conducting a pay equity study, developing a five-year plan to correct inequities, and bringing that plan to the bargaining table.
Without state leadership, pay equity will only advance in fits and starts – proposed by some unions, but not others; negotiated as a priority in some years, but not all.
Pay equity shouldn’t be a bargaining chip made to compete with COLAs, vacation days and bathroom breaks.
And that’s why state workers like Maia Downs can’t keep quiet anymore.
Kate Karpilow writes on issues affecting women, families and children and is the former executive director of the California Center for Research on Women & Families. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katekarpilow.