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Equal opportunity 

If pay is how you score it, women don’t have it yet in state government.

click to enlarge KAY DURNETT: She's seen change, but not enough, in state govenrment.
  • KAY DURNETT: She's seen change, but not enough, in state govenrment.
The numbers alone are enough to stop you in your tracks. Of the close to 30,000 people who work for the state of Arkansas — not including colleges and universities and elected officials — 625, or 2 percent earn more than $75,000 a year. Upwards of three-quarters of them, 78 percent, are men. Yet men make up only about 42 percent of state employees. It’s easy enough to see a few high-profile female faces on the news, to hear that a woman was just appointed to lead a single state agency, and think that equal employment opportunity must officially be a reality. Women outnumber men overall in colleges, and are neck-and-neck in medical and law schools. No one tells girls anymore they can’t be anything they want to be. End of problem. Right? But the numbers put the lie to any self-satisfied posturing. Overt, systemic discrimination may no longer be the primary obstacle — if it is, women apparently are being awfully quiet about it — but neither is benign neglect getting us where we need to be. Yes, need. The stakes are higher than bank account balances: fewer women at the highest ranks of state bureaucracy means women’s perspectives don’t get voiced as frequently as they should. Income is a reliable proxy for influence, according to Will Miller, a University of Arkansas professor and expert in the field. And it’s inherently undemocratic to have half the population wielding three-fourths of the influence. Not only are men still significantly overrepresented at the top of state government agencies — both in Arkansas and nationwide — but there hasn’t been much change since the late 1980s, according to research conducted by three University of Arkansas professors. Margaret Reid, Brinck Kerr and Will Miller, all professors in the university’s political science department, literally wrote the book on gender equity in state bureaucracies: “Glass Walls and Glass Ceilings,” published in 2003. They analyzed a decade’s worth of data from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1987-97. While they found pockets of progress, individual agencies that had seen their numbers of women managers increase, there was almost no widespread change. “Nationally, at both the local and state level, there’s a long way to go,” Miller said. “…There’s been some progress, but if we maintain what we’re doing now, it will be another 50 to 100 years before we get there.” They also found that the issue is much more complex than it’s usually made out to be. And while their research didn’t focus on any particular state, that complexity shows up in a look at Arkansas’s pay equity numbers broken down by department. They vary enormously. Among agencies with at least five employees earning above $75,000 per year, the attorney general’s office comes closest to parity: Of 19 people above the cut-off, nine (47 percent) are women — including six of the seven top management positions. That would seem to make sense, in light of how many newly minted lawyers each year are women. But over at the Public Defender Commission, only two of 16, or 13 percent, are women. Ironically, one of those two is Didi Sallings, head of the department. Other winners and losers: the Development Finance Authority, the Department of Information Technology, the Public Service Commission, and the departments of Education and Human Services, all have women making up at least 36 percent of their highly paid employees; and the departments of Correction and Legislative audit (both at 13 percent), the Highway Department (6 percent), Game and Fish, Parks and Tourism and the State Crime Lab (all at zero). Even among the departments with the highest percentages of highly paid women, though, the women’s average salaries almost always lagged behind those of the men. The attorney general’s office is an exception (the highly paid women out-earned the highly paid men by about $1,800), as is the Department of Higher Education, where the two highly paid women (including Director Linda Beene) out-earn the four highly paid men by about $6,400. Compare those figures with the Department of Information Technology, where among the seven employees who earn above $75,000 a year, the men’s average salary was $27,500 higher than the women’s average salary. At the Department of Human Services — which includes the social services jobs that have traditionally attracted a disproportionate number of women — the difference is more than $13,000. Although the state has a detailed salary system for most jobs — positions are classified in one of 26 grades, with four pay levels for each grade — there’s a good deal of wiggle room within the structure. Most of it requires official approval from the Office of Personnel Management (a division of the Department of Finance and Administration) and, in some cases, a legislative committee. But the top salary for these so-called classified jobs is about $79,000. That means most highly paid state workers are “unclassified,” and their salaries are set by their agency directors (as line items in the agency’s budget, which must be approved by the legislature). So there’s a lot more wiggle room, with a lot less oversight, at the highest levels. Kay Durnett has been in a unique position to watch the culture of state government change over the past 30 years: she’s been executive director of the Arkansas State Employees Association of state employees since 1974. “I think it’s better than it used to be,” she said, but not because anyone’s made a concentrated effort. During then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s first term, there were some numbers collected for a look at the equity issue, and they showed that outside Little Rock, there wasn’t as much difference in high-paid and low-paid state employees. Women had migrated to the social services, she said, and in many poorer counties, the county social services administrator was one of the best jobs available. “So that made everybody feel good, and the issue just kind of dissipated,” she said. To be fair, Arkansas’s public sector isn’t the only place where pay equity is still a major problem. In the private sector as well, women still only make about three-quarters what men do nationwide. Arkansas actually does a little better in this one measure: women’s salaries here average 78.5 percent of men’s, high enough to rank us 11th in the country, according to a study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. (Lest we rest on our laurels, though, we rank 45th in the percentage of employed women who work in managerial or professional positions — 29.3 percent.) D ramatic as they are, numbers don’t begin to tell the whole story. They may allow for sweeping generalizations — like the one in the first few paragraphs in this story — but they don’t do justice to the vast, tangled, interconnected web of cause and effect that is the problem of pay equity in state government. Pinpointing the problems and making effective changes takes a much more detailed study of employment and salary patterns, the UA’s Miller and Reid found. For instance, “If you look at social services, there are lots more women at all levels except the very highest,” said Reid, who heads the university’s master’s program in public administration. But in engineering and other historically male-dominated fields, “an entirely different picture presents itself.” The Highway and Transportation Department is very aware of the lack of women in its highest ranks, spokesman Randy Ort said. They’re hamstrung by a general shortage of women engineers — engineers account for 121 of the 145 highway department employees who earn more than $75,000 per year. Still, 20 years ago the department had one female engineer, and now there are 24, he said. G etting at the underlying causes of those differences is very difficult, Reid said. “That’s the $65 million question,” she said. “We have a fairly incomplete understanding of what it is,” but reasons may include socialization, the presence or lack of mentoring in the workplace, subtle discrimination, women themselves choosing different career paths or not having the desire to move into the highest ranks. Karla Wise’s description of her own career path spotlights two aspects of the issue. Wise, the chief deputy state auditor, is one of two highly paid women in the auditor’s office (there are also two men). But her own career path includes something experts say is crucial to moving women up the management ranks: making sure their supervisors don’t bypass them when they hand out the kind of good, challenging assignments that allow employees to stretch and improve their skills. Wise’s previous job was assistant to the man she succeeded as chief deputy auditor. “He pretty much put stuff on me where I didn’t have a choice,” Wise said. He sent her to represent the auditor’s office at legislative meetings, for example. “I never said, ‘I’m not comfortable with that.’ I wholeheartedly believe if I had not been his assistant I wouldn’t be where I am now.” But Wise said she sees a lot of women who seem to be more intimidated — who might not press the issue if they feel they deserve a promotion or think they’d be qualified for a higher-paying job. Women may be more likely to be content in the jobs they have, to just want to put their time in, she said. Lack of assertiveness isn’t a problem in his office, Attorney General Mike Beebe said. “We don’t have any bashful women over here.” Most of the women on Beebe’s management team were already in similar jobs at the office when Beebe became attorney general at the beginning of 2003. Working for the A.G.’s office is attractive to women for the same reason it’s attractive to men, said Ruth Whitney, the office’s highest-paid woman — the challenge and responsibility of making good public policy. It’s a different type of job altogether than working at the public defender’s office, where lawyers spend much of their time in court, and defending clients they may believe are guilty. People today — men and women — aren’t necessarily following the traditional idea of a linear career path, Reid said. “People have a much more complex sense of balance,” she said. “They’re not the workaholics of the post-war generation. The younger generation needs more balance.” So in analyzing workplace equity issues, pay is just the tip of the iceberg, Reid said. It’s the final result of sometimes two decades of decisions, both on the part of the employee who chooses to pursue a certain career field and on the part of those who have control over hiring and promotion. “We need a much more nuanced view of people to say more conclusively they aren’t getting paid enough,” she said. Whitney said she believes state government’s top ranks will look different in another few years. “It’s a matter of catching up,” she said. “We’ve now got a pool of very talented women that executives want to hire.” An important part of the equation for her, she said, is having a husband who helps balance both careers and family. The first generation of “superwomen,” those pioneers who first pushed to have both career and family, weren’t as likely to be married to men who’d grown up expecting to be equal partners in domestic responsibilities. “It’s surprising to me how many men have come to work for the attorney general’s office and said they wanted more structured hours,” she said. “Gender and family relationships over the course of the last 10-15 years have changed.” Reid, Miller and Kerr also looked at a phenomenon they called “glass walls” — the barriers that still keep women from going into some traditionally male-dominated professions such as engineering and information technology. There’s still a debate, Miller said, about how to explain that — whether women just aren’t interested in those fields, or are interested but choose other fields they believe will be more friendly to women. State Sen. Sue Madison’s been frustrated at times with the answers she’s heard at legislative hearings over the years. “This has come up several times in meetings,” she said. She or another woman legislator will ask an agency official — Madison cited Game and Fish as an example — why they aren’t hiring more women, and they’d say, “If a qualified person applies we’d be happy to hire them.” Madison doesn’t buy it. “I’m sure there are plenty of women out there majoring in something Game and Fish could use,” like biology or another science, she said. There’s also the fact that, at least in some state departments, people tend to stay in their jobs for a very long time, said state Personnel Administrator Twana Porter. The median age of state employees is 45, which Porter said is on the high side. “What you find is people tend to stay in jobs for a long time, so there may not be much opportunity to move up until people retire,” she said. “In my office people have 20-plus years of experience.” That’s also true at the Bureau of Legislative Research, said Beth Carson, that department’s top-ranking woman. “I can absolutely say that many of the people at the highest levels have been there a long time,” she said. “My supervisor’s been there 25 years. … The person he replaced a couple of years ago had been there about 28 years.” But Carson said she doesn’t think that explains the entire wage gap. “I don’t have any complaints about myself, no observations [of discrimination], but would anyone speak who did?” she said. “The numbers are interesting. Maybe women just don’t want to stick it out that long.” While Miller says some studies have shown that women frequently believe they’re not getting a fair shake at work, the state employees association’s Durnett said she sees very few gender-based complaints come into the state employee grievance system. “We get calls from people who don’t think they’ve been treated appropriately, but I can’t remember the last one I talked to who thought it was because of gender,” she said. “That doesn’t seem to be one of the major issues.” Theoretically, there are safeguards, she said. Jobs are supposed to be open to all applicants, which are then narrowed to five finalists. A committee of three people is supposed to sit in on the finalists’ interviews, and then each committee member ranks the finalists. “Theoretically there are safeguards,” Durnett said. “Do they always work? No.” M aking any significant progress on pay equity will mean, first and foremost, putting the issue back on the table and keeping it there. State governments in general have let their attention lag since the late 1980s, but in Arkansas, it’s arguable pay equity never had many people’s attention to begin with. Reid, Kerr and Miller write in “Glass Walls and Glass Ceilings” that the first obstacle is removing people’s misconception that we’ve already reached equity; too many policy-makers believe, or claim to, that women already have equal employment opportunities, and that affirmative action programs are at best unnecessary and at worst discriminatory. That means countering arguments about efficiency, merit and reverse discrimination with themes of democratic decision- and policy-making, the benefits of procedural equality, and democratic legitimacy. It’s also essential, they wrote, to articulate the benefits of pay equity in terms that appeal to white men, the group most likely to feel its interests are threatened by increased numbers of women in top positions. “Clearly, this is an enormously difficult task,” they wrote. The next step is to study the problem exhaustively, with a fine comb, to find what the specific issues are in each agency or profession — is there a culture within a particular agency that keeps women from getting in or moving up? Is the management structure extremely rigid and authoritarian? It’s also important to create a diverse enough hiring pool that there’s no need to question whether a woman or minority candidate is as qualified as a white male applicant. “Part of it is continued attention — what some people may not like to hear, affirmative action in some fields where there are continued disparities,” Reid said. Sue Madison would like to start with electing more women to the state legislature. With just 22 female lawmakers out of 132, women don’t wield much power as a group, she said. But if agencies knew that larger numbers of legislators were paying regular, significant attention to how many women were getting into the upper ranks at state agencies, those agencies’ officials would give more thought to it, she said. “It comes up just sporadically,” she said. “You don’t hear much about this issue.” As for affirmative action: “It’s not all that popular here.” Madison acknowledged that there certainly are male legislators who are sympathetic to women’s concerns. But friendly male voices aren’t the same as female voices. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor talked about being aware of the difference having a woman at the table made, Margaret Reid said. O’Connor said she didn’t necessarily approach every decision from that “woman’s perspective,” but she also knew that if she wasn’t on the bench, no one else would raise those issues. “That’s why representation is so important,” Reid said. “It allows those voices to speak for themselves rather than have someone else speak for them.”
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