Issue Briefs

Following are key sections of a GAO report on the pay gap between men and women in the federal workforce, examining reasons for that difference and showing how the gap varies for reasons including demographics and employing agency.


What GAO Found

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The overall pay gap between men and women in the federal workforce has narrowed considerably, from 19 cents on the dollar in 1999 to 7 cents in 2017, but the current pay gap is greater for certain groups of women, according to GAO’s analysis of data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Two trends help explain why the pay gap has narrowed: (1) men and women have become more similar in measurable factors related to pay, such as occupation; and (2) women have earned slightly higher rates of pay increases than men. In 2017, most of the overall pay gap—or 6 of 7 cents on the dollar—was not explained by differences between men and women in measurable factors (see figure). This unexplained portion of the pay gap may be due to factors not captured in the data GAO analyzed, such as work experience outside the federal government, or factors that cannot be measured, such as discrimination and individual choices. In 2017, the overall and unexplained gaps were greater for certain groups. For example, compared to White men, the unexplained gap was greater for Hispanic/Latina, Black, and American Indian or Alaska Native women than for White and Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander women.

Gender Composition of the Federal Workforce and Prior Research on the Gender Pay Gap for Federal Workers

Over the last 20 years, the federal workforce has consistently included more men than women. For example, according to OPM’s EHRI data, men made up 55 percent of the federal workforce in 1999 and 57 percent in 2018. In 2018, of about 2.1 million federal workers captured in the EHRI data, approximately 1.2 million were men and nearly 926,000 were women.

Although estimates of the exact size of the gender pay gap vary, the estimated pay gap between women and men in the federal workforce is smaller than the pay gap in the entire U.S. workforce, which includes the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. In 2018, the pay gap for federal workers was about 12 cents on the dollar, and the pay gap for the entire workforce was about 18 cents on the dollar, according to self-reported data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Prior research has found that the gender pay gap for federal workers is partly explained by differences between men and women in measurable factors that affect pay, such as occupation, education, and experience. This is referred to as the explained pay gap. For example, in our 2009 report, we found that the pay gap was partly due to differences between men and women in the occupations they held, their levels of education, and how long they had worked for the federal government.

We also identified other measurable factors that contributed to the explained gender pay gap, including race and ethnicity, federal agency, and veteran status. However, we found that a portion of the pay gap was not explained by differences between men and women in measurable factors that affect pay. This is referred to as the unexplained pay gap. Specifically, we found that 7 cents of the 11-cent pay gap in 2007 were unexplained after accounting for differences in measurable factors. Similarly, OPM found that about 4 cents of the 13-cent pay gap for white-collar federal workers in 2012 were not explained by measurable factors. The unexplained pay gap may be due to factors that are not captured in available data, such as work experience outside the federal government, or those that cannot be measured, such as discrimination and individual career choices. Furthermore, the explained pay gap could also be influenced by discrimination, to the extent that the measurable factors themselves are affected by discrimination.

The Gender Pay Gap for Federal Workers Has Narrowed Considerably Since 1999, but Is Greater for Certain Groups of Women Than for Others

We found that the overall gender pay gap—the difference in average annual salaries of men and women in the federal workforce—has narrowed considerably, from 19 cents on the dollar in 1999 to 7 cents on the dollar in 2017. This means that in 2017, women in the federal workforce earned 93 cents for every dollar earned by men. That year, women earned an average of $80,213 and men earned an average of $86,301.

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This overall gender pay gap is made up of two parts—the explained pay gap and the unexplained pay gap—which have both decreased since 1999:

• The explained pay gap is the portion of the overall pay gap that is explained by differences between men and women in measurable factors that affect pay, such as occupation, education, experience, race and ethnicity, and veteran status. From 1999 to 2017, the explained pay gap decreased considerably, from 11 cents to 1 cent on the dollar. According to EEOC officials, race and ethnicity differ fundamentally from the other measurable factors because they are identified in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as bases for unlawful employment discrimination. By including race and ethnicity and veteran status in our analysis, we are not implying that pay differences based on these factors are justified or unaffected by discrimination.

• The unexplained pay gap is the remaining portion of the overall pay gap that is not explained by differences between men and women in measurable factors that affect pay.

From 1999 to 2017, the unexplained gap decreased from 8 to 6 cents on the dollar. Our analysis could not determine the reasons for the unexplained pay gap, which may be due to factors that either are not captured in the data we analyzed or cannot be measured. For example, OPM data do not capture work experience outside the federal government or parental status. Other factors that cannot be measured, such as discrimination and individual career choices, could also affect pay. In its 2014 report, OPM identified several potential reasons for the unexplained pay gap, including the availability or absence of workplace flexibilities that may be important to workers—such as flexibility in work hours, whether travel is required, and the opportunity to telework—as well as workers’ caregiving responsibilities, such as child care and elder care. For example, a worker who expects to need flexible work arrangements may choose a position that offers greater flexibility but pays less than another position for which he or she is qualified. Furthermore, the explained pay gap could be influenced by discrimination, which would lead to the unexplained pay gap being understated. However, the existence of a pay gap, taken alone, does not establish whether unlawful discrimination has occurred.

The Gender Pay Gap is Greater for Certain Groups of Women, Including for Several Racial and Ethnic Groups

In 2017, both the overall gender pay gap and the unexplained gender pay gap were greater for certain groups of women, including Hispanic/Latina women, Black women, and American Indian or Alaska Native women.

In this section of the report, we focus on the unexplained pay gap, which is the remaining gap after accounting for measurable factors that affect pay. Specifically, as compared to White men, we found that the unexplained pay gap for Hispanic/Latina women, Black women, and American Indian or Alaska Native women ranged from 9 to 12 cents on the dollar, while it was smaller for White women (7 cents) and for Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander women (4 cents).48 In addition, the unexplained pay gap was generally greater for women with lower levels of education than for women with higher levels of education.49 For example, the unexplained pay gap was 7 cents on the dollar for women with a high school degree and 3 to 4 cents for women with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, advanced certificates, or doctoral degrees.

The unexplained pay gap was also greater for women who worked in blue-collar occupations (11 cents on the dollar), as compared to other occupations (3 to 7 cents). While women earned less than men in almost all of the groups we examined, we found that women with less than a high school degree and women in clerical occupations earned more than men in those groups. However, average salaries for workers in these groups are lower than average salaries for all federal workers.50Additionally, the unexplained pay gap was generally greater for women with more years of federal work experience than for women with fewer years of experience. For example, the unexplained gap was 8 cents on the dollar for women with 30 to 34 years of experience, and 5 cents for women with less than 5 years of experience. However, the unexplained gap did not continue to increase for women with 35 or more years of experience.

We also found that the size of the unexplained gender pay gap by federal agency ranged from about 2 to 11 cents on the dollar, compared to the government-wide unexplained gap of 6 cents. Of the 24 Chief Financial Officers (CFO) Act agencies—generally the largest federal agencies—20 agencies had an unexplained pay gap of about 6 cents on the dollar or less, while four agencies had an unexplained pay gap of about 7 cents or more.

Our analysis could not determine the reasons for these differences, and the size of an agency’s unexplained pay gap does not necessarily reflect the extent to which it has taken steps to reduce the pay gap. In addition, it is important to note that the existence of a pay gap, taken alone, does not establish whether unlawful discrimination has occurred. However, we found that agencies with larger percentages of women tended to have smaller unexplained pay gaps, and agencies with smaller percentages of women tended to have larger unexplained pay gaps. For example, in 2017, at the Department of Education, women made up 63 percent of the workforce, and the unexplained pay gap was about 2 cents. In contrast, at the Department of Transportation, women made up 26 percent of the workforce, and the unexplained pay gap was about 11 cents.

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Additionally, the unexplained pay gap was generally greater for women with more years of federal work experience than for women with fewer years of experience. For example, the unexplained gap was 8 cents on the dollar for women with 30 to 34 years of experience, and 5 cents for women with less than 5 years of experience. However, the unexplained gap did not continue to increase for women with 35 or more years of experience.

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