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Women In Science

Gender pay gap persisted at US federal science agencies

The source of the wage differences varied by agency

by Andrea Widener
October 30, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 43


A pay gap between female and male employees at US federal science agencies decreased but persisted over 15 years, and the source of the disparity wasn’t the same across the board, according to a new study (Am. J. Sociol. 2019, DOI: 10.1086/705514).

An academic research team looked at the pay and position of federal employees, including almost 2.8 million staff members at seven science agencies, from 1994 to 2008. All agencies saw a substantial decrease in the pay gap during that time period. At the National Science Foundation, for example, women made 58 cents for every dollar made by men in 1994. By 2007–8, that had risen to 73 cents.

Table comparing how much women were paid compared to men at US science agencies in 1994 and 2008.
Closing the gap
The wage difference between women and men at US federal science agencies narrowed but did not close from 1994 to 2008.
Note: Based on average salaries for the years noted. The exception is NSF, which is based on 2007 salaries. Source: Am. J. Sociol. 2019, DOI: 10.1086/705514.

When the researchers looked for the source of the pay gap, they found that it was different at different agencies. Physical science-focused agencies—the Department of Energy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—had the largest pay gaps between men and women working in the same jobs. Whereas at life-science and interdisciplinary agencies—the NSF, National Institutes of Health, Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Environmental Protection Agency—the pay gap was caused by hiring more women into lower level positions rather than paying them less than men in the same position.

The researchers expected the federal general schedule (GS) pay scale to be a major factor in narrowing the pay gap for workers, but a large percentage of workers—for example, 40% at the NSF and 30% at the NIH—are not paid on the GS scale. This contributes to the gender pay gap because people paid outside of the GS scale are more likely to earn more and are more likely to be men, the researchers say.

“Our study shines a bright light on the persistence of earnings disparities between women and men, even when there is an appearance that the federal system is designed to avoid these pay gaps,” Kaye Husbands Fealing of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy, one of the study researchers, says in a statement.



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