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The Importance of the Public Sector to Economic Success of Women

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
September 28, 2018

Gender equality in the workplace, in terms of position and pay, is a timely topic. This is an issue that has implications not just for private employers but for the public sector as well. As societal norms have evolved and women provide a growing percentage of household income, the terms of conditions of employment are critical to the financial wellbeing of families. While the wage gap has been reduced since 1980, the median wage for a full-time employed man is still $10,500 per year higher than that of a full-time employed woman.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the civilian workforce of just over 159 million adults, 74 million are women and a full 70 million are employed. Among those described as “Black” and employed, women outnumber men by over a million. While a slightly higher percentage of African-American women are in the workforce than are White women (59.4 percent versus 56.3 percent); the numbers are closer still for those who are currently employed. These figures point the way toward deeper societal challenges. African-American men experience incarceration at a rate far higher than White men. Further, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is persistently higher than that for Whites in our society.

Our societal challenges persist in other ways. The #metoo movement has recognized sexual harassment and assault in many sectors of our economy. This includes the public sector where officials in positions of great power have been brought low due to inappropriate and even potentially illegal behaviors. The ugly face of sexism permeates the social, political and economics realms of society. Just as the racial disparities in outcomes from the criminal justice system show pervasive racial inequality that spark calls for radical change to policing and incarceration.

Statistics show that there are institutional arrangements that can make a difference on wages. State and local proposals to hike the minimum wage over the long stagnating federal wage is achieving results in California, Massachusetts and North Carolina among other places. Most minimum wage workers are women, so these improvements will help improve family finances in the 29 states and Washington, DC which have taken action to increase the minimum over the federal level of $7.25. These actions will help narrow the pay gap. A part of this movement is to eliminate or narrow the gap between the wage earned by “tipped” workers and the general minimum. It is estimated that two-thirds of workers covered by a lower “tipped” minimum wage are women. Women are also seen as suffering from higher levels of wage theft and minimum wage underpayment.

The density of union membership makes a difference for wage rates for women, particularly women of color. The wage gap between men and women is significantly narrower among union members than non-union personnel. Overall union members from the African-American community earn 33 percent more than non-union workers. This difference soars to 42 percent for Hispanic and Latinx workers. This is significant as the occupations where women are the majority of workers including social services, education, training, libraries and health care are plagued by lower wages in the absence of union contracts.

Public sector employment is very important to the economic well-being of women in the workforce. In the federal sector, women make up over 43 percent of executive branch personnel. Past studies have shown a gap of 11 to 13 percent between pay of men and women in the federal government. Members of Congress are calling for a formal review by the GAO to offer answers as to why these gaps persist in the public sector. African-American women make up over 10 percent of federal employees. The same pattern continues in state and local government with high percentages of women throughout health and education. Fair pay in the public sector makes a difference.

To ease the financial challenges of women in public administration and women in the work force in general more family friendly policies are being put into place. States are implementing paid family leave bills which cushion the financial blow of paternity and maternity leave for new parents, as well as elder care and illness of family members. States are prohibiting employers from inquiring about past earnings levels during hiring processes and are implementing equal pay laws. Cities are offering training on salary negotiations and holding contractors accountable for equal pay and working conditions.

The public sector is important to the economic wellbeing of women as employer, regulator and leader in the area of equal pay and ethical treatment. As with many of the important economic and social struggles of the era, progress is made at the state and local level which helps push for federal action. The political road may be long and difficult nationally, but there are many creative ideas in practice thanks to the local “laboratories of democracy”.


Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @policyben . The opinions expressed are his alone and do reflect the views of any of his affiliations.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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