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Originally published July 22, 2013 at 3:58 PM | Page modified July 22, 2013 at 4:45 PM

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Guest: Closing the gender-wage disparity among city workers

The wage disparity between men and women working for the city of Seattle is unacceptable, writes guest columnist Jean Godden.

Special to The Times

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IT’S maddening that 50 years after the Equal Pay Act, Seattle continues to have a gender pay gap — the widest of any major city in the nation.

Last April, the National Partnership for Women and Families reported Seattle women are treated shabbily, receiving 73 cents for every dollar earned by a male worker. (Nationally they receive 77 cents.) Asked why Seattle does so badly, my colleagues and I requested a study on the state of pay equity among city workers.

That study, released last week, is disturbing to those of us who have worked for pay equity for years. It turns out that the city pays its female employees about 10 percent less than male employees. Furthermore, men dominate both the higher levels of executive pay overall and departments where wages run higher.

By the time employees reach Executive Four, the highest city pay level, there are 17 men and just one woman. And men greatly outnumber women in higher-paying job types, such as police officers and line workers, across city departments.

It’s small comfort to learn that gender-based pay inequity in city government isn’t as egregious as in Seattle businesses on the whole. But this imbalance is still unacceptable. This is a problem that affects all of us.

We know now that women are getting paid less in the private and public sector. And it’s a problem with real consequences — 40 percent of American households with children have a woman as the sole or primary family earner. Women are twice as likely to be making minimum wage.

In response to the city’s report, Mayor Mike McGinn announced the formation of a Gender Pay Task Force to “develop short-term and long-term strategies to address gender-pay inequities.” The task force would report this fall and develop a gender-justice initiative by January.

We know the causes of the pay gap are complex. We know that our male colleagues find the study conclusions as maddening as we do.

The task force should be bold and innovative in finding solutions both inside city government and beyond, such as ensuring that workforce-development training and apprenticeship programs — programs designed for family-wage jobs — are targeted at and utilized by women. My council colleagues and I should consider adopting elements of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has yet to pass Congress, to strengthen equal-pay laws.

We should encourage flextime policies that make it easier to balance family obligations with a career. Only about a third of employers allow some of their employees to work from home on a regular basis. We should expand access to child care so that women do not have to choose between higher-paying jobs and taking care of children.

More immediately, I am proposing two actions that the mayor and council can take to help women narrow the gap by alerting them to pay inequities. It’s hard to “lean in,” as Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg says, when one doesn’t have all the facts.

Let’s make information on city employees’ salaries, which are already public record, more easily accessible on the Web so that they can learn what their colleagues are earning and identify pay discrepancies. Maybe the difference is based on years of service or technical certification held by the male colleague, but maybe not.

It’s time to pass an ordinance protecting private-sector employees’ right to discuss salaries. This right is enshrined in federal law, but remedies for workers are an insufficient deterrent. No female employee should fear retaliation from her employer for asking a male colleague about his salary.

Too many women struggle to get by on less for the same work. This reality informs my priorities as an elected leader. I co-sponsored the Paid Sick and Safe Time ordinance so that low-wage workers can take time off to care for a sick child. Women-dominated industries such as child care and food service are rarely offered paid sick leave. Additionally, the council funds the Child Care Assistance Program, which helps low- and moderate-income families pay for child care. But, clearly, there is more work to do.

If this problem was an easy one to solve, we wouldn’t be talking about pay inequity five decades after Congress passed the Equal Pay Act. However, the glass ceiling still exists. Too many talented women find it unbreakable. Women feel it most sharply, but, ultimately, all are affected adversely.

Jean Godden is a Seattle City Council member.

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