Obama signs executive order for equal pay

President Barack Obama signs executive orders on equal pay at the White House on April 8 as women including Lilly Ledbetter, left, look on. (Olivier Douliery, MCT / April 8, 2014)

Women who work for the federal government, on the whole, make less than their male co-workers — just as in the private sector.

But among the federal workers, a new study shows, that earnings gap is narrowing.

Between 1992 and 2012, according to the Office of Personnel Management, the difference between earnings for men and women shrank from 30 percent to 13 percent.

On orders from President Barack Obama, the Office of Personnel Management reviewed salary data from 1992, 2002 and 2012 and looked at ways to reduce the gap. The study, "Governmentwide Strategy on Advancing Pay Equality in the Federal Government," was released this month.

The federal wage gap of 13 percent — meaning that female federal workers make 87 cents for every dollar earned by male co-workers — is well below the overall wage gap of 23 percent for American workers with full-time, year-round jobs.

"They have made some progress, which is encouraging," said Jeff Hayes of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, an advocacy group that works on the wage gap issue.

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta says the trend is positive, but said the government has more work to do.

"While our report shows the progress that we've made, we won't be satisfied until women working in federal jobs earn the same as their male counterparts, at every level," she wrote in a blog post.

Veronica Villalobos, OPM's director of diversity and inclusion, said the news is mixed.

"We were very excited that we now have only a 13 percent gap, but we see it as an opportunity to self-correct," she said.

With 1.9 million employees, Villalobos says, the federal government can be an example for all employers.

The Office of Personnel Management said the gap in earnings between men and women in the federal workplace can be attributed largely to the fact that more women are employed on the lower rungs of the federal pay scale and are underrepresented in higher-paying jobs such as engineering and management.

The pay gap was smaller in higher-ranking jobs: female supervisors and managers earned 95.6 percent of the salaries of their male counterparts. And in the Senior Executive Service, women earned 99.2 percent of what men earned. Only one-third of senior executives are women.

Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal workers, said the report offers evidence that the federal employee pay system works.

"If a woman holds a job or a man holds that job, it doesn't matter," she said. "You get the same salary. As the OPM study found, most of the measured gap is from women being concentrated in relatively lower-paid jobs."

The union wants the government to leave the federal hiring and pay system as it is and believes the system is under attack from those who want the government to look more like the private sector.

The AFGE said the report supports its call to convert more private contractors into federal government employees, so that they can be brought into the system.

Contractors "can get away with paying women less and they do," Simon said. "You bring that work back in house where it belongs and you eliminate some of that discrimination."

In an effort to reduce gender and wage discrimination among federal contractors, Obama signed executive orders this month to prohibit contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss pay. He also ordered the Department of Labor to require federal contractors to provide pay data on their workers.

Those moves came as the Senate blocked a bill that would have barred retaliation against workers who discuss pay, required employers to explain pay differences among workers in similar jobs and allowed workers who sue to gain punitive damages in addition to back pay.