California Forum

Women are paid less than men even in government jobs. Even in California. Why?

California women rally at the Capitol in 2016 in a push for improved economic security for women. The state laid the groundwork in 1981 for closing the pay gap for state employees, but was far less successful than Minnesota.
California women rally at the Capitol in 2016 in a push for improved economic security for women. The state laid the groundwork in 1981 for closing the pay gap for state employees, but was far less successful than Minnesota. Sacramento Bee file

More than three decades ago, some 20 states – Minnesota and California among them – passed groundbreaking pay equity laws.

The aim was comparable pay for work of comparable value, whether the jobs were typically held by men or women. While employers generally put a lower price tag on “women’s work,” the thinking went, perhaps the public sector could set an example.

Why should the government pay an office assistant less than a groundskeeper, after all?

Minnesota made good on its pay equity promise. California? Not so much.

Since the 1980s, Minnesota has reduced its state worker gender wage gap to 11 percent, nearly half California’s. That means the median salary for female state workers in Minnesota is 89 percent of men’s, while women employed by the state of California make 79.5 percent of the median male state worker’s salary.

It’s a disparity that deserves some consideration as California’s human resources officials gather this week at a conference in Sacramento. With women’s issues at the national forefront again, California legislators should pay attention as well.

The state employs nearly a quarter of a million workers – more than five times the full-time California workforce of Apple. But California’s public sector leaders haven’t held themselves to the same pay equity standards they require of private sector companies.

Even the state’s new and much-lauded Fair Pay Act requiring equal pay for “substantially similar work” is unclear about whether it applies to state employees.

The website for the upcoming California Department of Human Resources (CalHR) conference chalks up California’s lingering state worker gender pay gap to “more males than females working in the state’s higher paying job classifications.”

To reduce the gap, CalHR recommends recruiting more women into higher-paying, male-dominated positions and providing more training and professional development.

While these strategies are worth pursuing, they don’t address the persistent under-valuing of thousands of pink collar jobs – which California’s 1981 pay equity bill was intended to help correct.

California’s Senate Bill 459, authored by the late Orange County Democrat Paul Carpenter, made it clear that its intent was to “establish a state policy of setting salaries for female-dominated jobs on the basis of comparability of the value of the work.”

But while the bill, now ensconced in law as Government Code 19827.2, mandated annual pay data reports, it lacked funding to make pay adjustments, and was written so that collective bargaining laws could supersede it.

Though some of California’s bargaining units have at times negotiated to improve women’s wages, the lack of a consistent statewide strategy became an unaddressed reason for the high gender wage gap among California state workers. After the 1980s, attention to comparable worth pretty much died down.

So what can we learn from Minnesota’s more successful pay equity program?

After passage of Minnesota’s pay equity law, it took only three years for that state to complete its first round of pay adjustments, averaging only 1.25 percent of state payroll per year.

About 8,500 employees in 200 female-dominated job classes received pay equity increases, which averaged $2,200, an 11.2 percent increase over women’s average wages.

That’s a big difference in dollars for daily living, rent or mortgage payments. It’s an increase that can seed a college fund.

Not surprisingly, 75 percent of the workers who received pay adjustments were clerical and health workers. Eight hundred fifty were men.

“It’s changed lives in a big way – we didn’t have to work three jobs,” said Bonnie Watkins, a former clerical worker in Minnesota who went on to serve as the state’s pay equity coordinator.

No employees had wages cut or lost their jobs. Nor was Minnesota’s pay equity program a one-shot wonder. The state went on to review job evaluations and wages every two years.

Because of this ongoing vigilance, only six job classifications needed pay equity adjustments in 2014. The total cost to the state was a mere $150,000, or 0.008 percent of state payroll.


The Minnesota effort succeeded because a tenacious group of activists, legislators, labor leaders and state officials persevered over 30 years. They were also undeniably clever in how they designed their program, including these features which California policymakers should consider now:

No back pay: Minnesota bypassed the thorny – and expensive – prospect of offering back pay for classifications that were underpaid.

Permanent: Minnesota’s pay equity legislation set up a permanent and ongoing process to review jobs and make pay adjustments.

Gender analysis: Minnesota uses a respected job evaluation method, the Hay point system, to rate the skills, effort, responsibilities and working conditions for each job classification and then compare total point scores. Pay adjustments are made when jobs in male- and female-dominated fields have equal total point scores, but are compensated differently.

Collective bargaining: California officials claim they can’t take a statewide approach to pay equity because they are obligated to negotiate separately with each of 21 bargaining units.

Minnesota takes a different approach. State officials identify inequities across the entire state workforce, earmark funds to make pay adjustments, and then bring these dollars to the relevant bargaining units. (Minnesota has 16).

Negotiators then determine the pace – not the possibility – of payouts.

Report-based: Minnesota’s program is “report-based, not complaint-based.” There’s no waiting for courageous workers to step forward and file complaints. Minnesota leaders take proactive steps to ensure pay equity for the entire state workforce.

Barbara Battiste, director of Minnesota’s Office on the Economic Status of Women, sums up their achievement: “For state government jobs of comparable value, our pay equity law eliminated the gender pay gap – without great cost and with no disruption.”

Is it too much to hope that state officials in California will be inspired by Minnesota’s undeniable success?

California is essentially now a one-party state – with a Democratic governor who signed the original comparable worth bill in 1981 and supermajorities of Democrats in both branches of the legislature.

All of this political firepower could be used to make California a model employer – and finally deliver on its equal pay promise.

Kate Karpilow is the former executive director of the California Center for Research on Women & Families. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @katekarpilow.