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Workplace Compensation

An Incomplete Picture of What Women Make

For all the recent attention given to women’s pay, the data available to analyze it exhibit quite a few gaps.

A stronger, more accurate picture of women in Washington would emerge if some of the biggest holes in each category of data—federal worker pay, congressional salaries, and private-sector compensation—were filled. Below are some of the problems National Journal identified.


Federal workers. The Office of Personnel Management, the government agency that manages civil-service programs, maintains the most thorough, up-to-date salary records of any of the resources that NJ used. But a crucial component of that data is missing: metro-area statistics. Their absence poses a problem for someone hoping to gain insight into the status of female federal workers in the Washington area.

(FULL COVERAGE: Women in Washington)

As any local knows, not all federal employees work in D.C. proper; in fact, some of the biggest agencies and departments, such as the Pentagon and the National Institutes of Health, employ huge numbers of people just outside the city limits. OPM stopped reporting data for so-called Metropolitan Statistical Areas in 2004, and, although statewide data are available, it’s difficult to determine precisely where those workers are employed within a state.


Researchers can glean an alternative angle on federal workers in the D.C. area from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, which does have statistics for residents by metropolitan area. (Unlike OPM, the American Community Survey measures the population that lives in the area, rather than the one that works in it.) But it doesn’t break down government workers to the same level of detail; GS levels are available through OPM but not ACS. Neither data set gives a complete picture of federal employees in the metropolitan region.

Hill staffers. The biggest challenge in trying to compare pay among Hill aides is the inconsistency of titles. The only way to know if a staff assistant in one congressional office performs the same tasks as a staff assistant in another is to ask them—not exactly efficient, given the 20,000-plus Hill employees. Although LegiStorm, NJ’s source of congressional salary information, reports an overall “very high” rate of accuracy in its data, the database has difficulties beyond its control—sometimes staffers change jobs, for example, without their office updating the official record. Finally, LegiStorm’s salary records go back to only 2000, making it impossible to track decades-long trends related to women’s pay, even as the database provides the best current-day snapshot.

Private-sector workers. Data on the D.C. private sector are the spottiest of our three categories. The first call NJ made was to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which releases the monthly headline jobs report and collects data on workers at the state, metro, and local levels. BLS said it didn’t have sufficiently granular data to compare women and men in the District’s occupations and industries. Instead, we turned to our own survey of heads of trade associations, professional societies, interest groups, and think tanks to get a sense of the private-sector pay gap.

BLS can provide a comprehensive national picture of the private sector, but that, too, comes with caveats. There are two sets of countrywide data, as The Washington Post pointed out last month. If you use annual wage data from the Census Bureau, teachers and others who don’t work year-round end up with a lower annual wage. Because women in general work fewer hours per year than men, it’s difficult to tease out the pay gap caused by wage discrimination. On the other hand, if you use BLS’s hourly wage measure to compare men’s and women’s pay, the statistics exclude salaried workers—a sizable portion of the population.


This article appears in the July 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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