Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why North Carolina Needs A Pay Equity Study

By Polly Williams

The recent passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act in the U.S. House of Representatives has drawn national attention to the continuing disparity between women’s earnings and men’s. Equal pay for equal work is fair -- we all seem to agree on that -- yet women’s wages continue to lag behind. The gender gap has narrowed so that women now make 77 percent of what men do, yet even recent gains for women only appear because men’s average earnings rate went down.

Since our state government, with about 90,000 employees, is North Carolina’s largest employer, wage disparities between men and women are, or should be, of prime concern to legislators. Yet The Studies Act of 2008 failed to include the proposed Pay Equity Study Commission. The proposal would have resulted in a study of wage disparities by both gender and race. Four such proposals have been introduced in recent years, without result.

But ever since 1982 various reports have indicated that a thorough study of gender wage disparities, followed by action, is in order. In 1982 “Patterns of Pay in State Government,” a report from the Office of State Personnel discovered a pattern of white males overrepresented in higher salary grades, and blacks and women overrepresented in lower salary grades. A bill for a comparable worth study was passed but afterwards attacked so bitterly that it was repealed the next year. Legislative reform as a result of the report: none. Twenty years later, in 2002, a report from the North Carolina Justice Center revealed the same pattern of disparities between male and female wages. As a result a bill for a pay equity study commission to analyze data and make recommendations to improve gender equity in wages in state employment received a hearing before the House Government Committee and was granted unanimous approval. But there was no studies bill that year.

Moving on to more of this ho-hum record, in 2004, we find the Office of State Personnel undertook a special emphasis project: “Female Employment in North Carolina State Government.” The data section showed that female employees made up 49 percent of the workforce subject to the Personnel Act but were 71.4 percent of those in low wage occupations (African-American women were clustered in the lowest wage jobs). Two bills sponsored by Representative Deborah Ross proposed measures for study and reform; part of one bill which raised the entry-level salary of a state employee by almost $2,000 did pass; the pay equity study commission, however, was not approved, nor were measures addressing accountability of managers for wage disparities.

The figures from the Office of State Personnel in 2007 indicated that white men make up a little more than one-third of the workforce subject to the Personnel Act but are over 50 percent of those in the very top salary grades. Meanwhile black women who are less than 20 percent of the workforce are overrepresented in the lowest grades.

Two questions arise here. One is whether women are paid as well as men in the same jobs. A study would give a rough answer and permit further analysis. The other question is whether positions mostly occupied by women pay less than positions mostly occupied by men even when job skills and credentials such as education and experience are comparable. Or another potential explanation is that women sometimes might need even more credentials to be hired for jobs that pay less than men’s. Here is where we especially need a study -- not to see whether women aren’t ambitious, are in and out of the job market, or whether they really prefer to stay home with the kids -- but whether one female-occupied job requires more and pays less than one somewhat-comparable male-occupied job.

Pay disparities between women and men won’t be wiped out overnight. But let’s see some progress here in the direction of fairness. A Pay Equity Study Commission could discern and define problems and point the way toward some changes that would move our state government toward being the model employer it ought to be.
Williams is a retired university professor and a volunteer at NC Justice Center. More information about NC Women United may be found at:
Copyright (C) 2008 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 9/08

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