The gender divide

Why women trail men in earnings at the city of Austin

City officials in August released a long-awaited 16-page report suggesting the pay gap between men and women working for the city of Austin had shrunk to just a few pennies per dollar. The average woman, excluding first responders, made 96 cents for every $1 a man earned. In nearly half the jobs reviewed, the study added, women earned more than men.

But the city’s study failed to capture the larger issues of gender imbalance that remain at City Hall.

An American-Statesman analysis, using a different methodology to examine of the hourly wage data for nearly 12,000 full-time employees, finds that when looking at the entire workforce, the median woman actually earns 86 cents for every dollar a man earns.

The problem is not one of equal pay for equal work: Men and women doing the same job earn similar pay, with differences in earnings usually reflecting years of experience with the city. But the city government’s workforce is overwhelmingly male, especially at the upper-management tiers and other higher-paying positions.

The American-Statesman’s findings show:

- Nearly 70 percent of the city’s full-time workers are men, and 63 percent of the city’s upper management is male. For purposes of the analysis, the Statesman defines upper management as department heads, assistant department heads and the upper tiers of the city manager’s office — altogether about 130 positions.

- Women are overrepresented at the lower end of the pay scale and underrepresented among the highest-earning workers. While 30 percent of the city workers are women, they account for 36.3 percent of the employees making less than $30 an hour ($62,400 a year for someone working 40 hours a week) but only 23.6 percent of the workers making $30 an hour or more.

- Compared to the women on the city’s workforce, men have longer city careers, which has allowed them opportunities for promotions and raises. Of the 1,518 people who have worked for the city for 20 years or more, 73.1 percent are men.

- The city is doing better than the national pay gap, which is 78.6 cents per $1 a man earns, and the state, which has a pay gap of 77.8 cents per $1, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Explore the results

The American-Statesman requested the hourly wages, job titles and years of service for nearly 12,000 full-time workers employed on April 1 by the city of Austin. The median hourly pay — the amount earned by the person at the exact middle of the pack — was calculated for men and women. That comparison, showing the median woman earns 86 cents for every $1 a man earned, is the gender pay gap. Calculated a different way, using averages and not the median, the pay gap shrinks to 91 cents for every $1 a man earns.

A more detailed look at the data, including the breakdown of gender and pay based on job title, department and upper management status, is available below.

Equal compensation practices are important, advocates say, because they strengthen the area’s economy by increasing the earning potential of both genders. Closing the pay gap among the city’s workforce may have an outsized impact on the entire Central Texas region because city government is one of the five biggest employers in Austin.

City officials say they have taken steps to target the recruiting of women, particularly in the Fire Department (90 percent men) and the Police Department (77 percent men). The City Council has also taken a look at pay inequity last year, ordering the pay study that came out in August.

Austin Human Resources Director Mark Washington acknowledged there was some room for improvement. The city study noted that the pay gap widens for female minorities.

“Certainly we’re not satisfied where we are now,” Washington said. But he said union-based policies designed to equalize pay and promotion opportunities leave him little wiggle room to enact policies to hire and promote more women.

For instance, fire and police union contracts spell out exactly what someone is paid, given their levels of experience, for each job title. And there are strict eligibility criteria for receiving a promotion, which usually involve sitting for a test and not just a simple interview. Even for rank-and-file city workers, Washington said he has to adhere to rigid rules regarding hiring and pay that are designed to reward experience and qualifications.

“At the end of the day, we want to hire the most qualified person,” Washington said, mentioning legal concerns with a quota system that benefits any one group over another.

That’s why gender pay experts often promote blanket policies that will benefit women and men, such as flexible work hours and generous family leave policies.

Experts on gender pay say there’s no single reason why women often earn less than men. The gap is driven by educational opportunities, the types of jobs women and men pursue, lack of salary negotiating, pressures women face to be the primary caregivers and, in some cases, an unconscious gender bias.

“Women typically go into jobs that are lower-paying than men do,” said Jessica Milli, an economist with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Over time, that pay difference gets accentuated, and it really amounts to a lot of earning losses over a woman’s lifetime.”

Some women who work for the city say promoting and retaining women isn’t a high priority and that other cities have done a better job at making this a front-burner issue. Carol Guthrie, the head of the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union that represents Austin employees, said she has received more complaints over the years from women about not getting promoted.

“Men will promote men,” she said.

Austin police Chief Art Acevedo speaks at a police department recruitment drive aimed at the female workforce on Oct. 17. Women make up 63 percent of non-sworn police jobs but only 10 percent of sworn police positions. (Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)

Fewer women up the ladder

Katrina Pruitt joined the Austin Police Department 25 years ago. “I can’t remember ever not wanting to be in law enforcement,” Pruitt said. She quickly rose through the ranks, going from detective to sergeant and now lieutenant. Her job now involves managing the city’s high-profile SWAT team unit. “Every day is an adventure,” she said.

But each time Pruitt was promoted, she was less likely to see other women in her ranks. As a police lieutenant, Pruitt is paid $60.75 an hour, or $126,360 annually. On one hand, she’s a shining example of pay equality in the Police Department because she’s paid the same as her male counterparts. But the Statesman analysis found the Police Department has one of the biggest pay gaps of any city department: for every $1 earned by a man at the Police Department, a woman gets 69 cents.

The median wage for a woman who works for the Police Department is $25.04 an hour, which is $52,083 annually for a full-time worker. But a man’s median wage in the department is $36.39, which is $75,691 annually for a full-time worker.

Much of that has to do with the type of jobs men and women do — and how they are valued. This is known in academic circles as “occupational segregation.” In general, women in the Police Department are drawn to non-sworn jobs that promise predictable day shifts. Women make up 63 percent of these non-sworn police jobs. But they are only 10 percent of sworn police positions in all ranks.

All 18 of the city’s police commanders are men, earning among them a median salary of $146,099. Out of six assistant police chiefs, one is a woman. And of the department’s 69 police lieutenants, six are women. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the city’s 911 call-takers are women, earning a median wage of $18.97 an hour, which equals an annual salary of $39,458 for those working a 40-hour week.

The reason there are fewer women at the higher ranks in the police force no doubt stems from the fact that there simply are fewer women in the pipeline to begin with. For instance, only 8.6 percent of police officers are women.

The Police Department tries to combat this with women-centric recruiting sessions. Last month, female police officers gathered at an East Austin church to tell a group of about three dozen women why they should join the force.

Pruitt believes another factor is family life. She’s been given the same promotion opportunities as men at the Police Department, she said. But she acknowledges that the promotions weren’t without sacrifice. She made the “conscious decision” not to have kids in order to focus on her career.

“I wanted to move up in this department — I love this department. I wanted to try to go as high as I could,” she said.

Dori Keily worked as a lineworker for Austin Energy for six years before moving to a desk job. The switch was a promotion and a raise, Keily said, but a not-insignificant factor in her decision was the difficulty of working in a job so dominated by men. (Stephen Spillman/For American-Statesman)


Dori Keily was the first and last of her kind. Twenty years ago, Keily applied for a job as a utility lineworker at Austin Energy, a department whose workforce today is 69 percent male.

A woman had never held that job before. In fact, this job title is more commonly known as “lineman” because women rarely do it. The physically demanding job involves climbing utility poles to install and maintain electric transmission lines. Lineworkers clock in at odd hours, sometimes repairing transmission lines in the middle of the night after a big storm.

But Keily, who was a 27-year-old nurse at the time, knew that linework pays well. The bulk of Austin Energy’s lineworkers today make between about $40,000 and $80,000 annually.

“I told them safety was No. 1 and that I could outwork a lot of men, but maybe not most men,” Keily said. After passing a test that involves lifting heavy objects while hoisted to the utility pole, she got the job in 1995.

Keily said once she got over the fear of falling — she fell three times — the job itself was fun and invigorating. “I loved it,” she said. But there were drawbacks to being the only woman. “It’s all guys,” she said, “so you have to prove yourself.”

After six years climbing poles, she left for a desk job at Austin Energy. It was a promotion and a raise, Keily said, but a not-insignificant factor was the difficulty of working in a job so dominated by men.

“If you just looked outside the electric industry and at construction jobs, how many women do you see? It’s part of our culture to a large degree.”

Cheryl Mele, Austin Energy chief operating officer

Austin Energy Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Mele, who oversees electric generation and distribution, said there’s no doubt women are physically capable of doing jobs like lineworking.

But Mele, who makes $218,899 as the city’s highest-earning woman, said there are other aspects of the job that may discourage women.

“Many of us women don’t want a job where we are out working in a thunderstorm, an ice storm,” she said. Mele added that because women take on primary parenting roles, they can be reluctant to be called out in the middle of the night. “If you just looked outside the electric industry and at construction jobs, how many women do you see?” Mele said. “It’s part of our culture to a large degree.”

But experts on the gender gap say occupational segregation is impacted by faulty assumptions about men and women being inherently different. University of Texas business professor Emily Amanatullah questioned the assumption that only men are willing to work odd hours. “There are women out there who don’t have a family to take care of,” Amanatullah said.

Keily now makes $75,732 a year as a customer service planner. If she had stuck with lineworking, though, her earnings would have escalated faster and she would be making $80,246 a year today, assuming a 40-hour work week, or closer to $96,000 a year if she became a supervisor.

Jennifer Saucedo has been a crew leader for nearly four of her 14 years at Austin Resource Recovery. Saucedo’s job involves leading a crew of street cleaners that descend upon downtown streets to clean after bars and clubs shut down. (Stephen Spillman/For American-Statesman)

Gaining ground?

When stay-at-home mom Jennifer Saucedo needed work, she applied on a whim for a job sorting recycling at the male-dominated Austin Resource Recovery department.

“I didn’t have any kind of experience other than taking care of my kids and running errands and things like that,” Saucedo said. Fourteen years later, Saucedo still works for Austin Resource Recovery, but now she’s been promoted to supervisor.

In some ways, Saucedo is an exception at Austin Resource Recovery: She holds a job that typically is done by men. This department’s workforce is 85 percent male, but women are paid higher salaries on average. Women earn a median salary of $56,909 working a full 40-hour workweek, compared to $41,039 for men. That’s because in Austin Resource Recovery women tend to be doing higher-paid administrative tasks, not boots-on-the-ground recycling and trash pickup jobs.

Saucedo’s job now involves leading a crew of street cleaners that descend upon downtown streets at 2:30 a.m. to clean after the bars and clubs shut down. She drives a white pickup and monitors the leaf-blowing street cleaners.

Out of 16 crew leaders, she’s the only woman. But even in a department that tends to pay women better than men, her pay is $44,220 annually, while the median annual salary of the men who hold that same job is $47,299. That’s because some of her male co-workers have more years of service at the city. For instance, another crew leader who earns $56,639 has worked for Austin Resource Recovery for 14 more years than Saucedo.

Gender pay experts say women’s pay can be affected by having shorter careers, primarily from taking breaks for child rearing. Saucedo is an example of these missed earnings, because she didn’t launch a career until her kids were in school.

Saucedo said she has fun busting stereotypes about “garbagemen.” She’ll never forget the time a little boy watched her recycling truck go by.

“He said, ‘Look, Mom, it’s a mom!’” Saucedo said. “I’ll never forget that.”

Xochitl Hernandez counts down students' workouts during a class for applicants for a job at the Austin Fire Department on Oct. 21. Hernandez is one of 67 sworn female firefighters in Austin. (Deborah Cannon/American-Statesman)

Fighting perceptions

She’s 5-foot-3 and weighs no more than 120 pounds. And yet 40-year-old Xochitl Hernandez says wearing more than 65 pounds of firefighting gear is not a problem.

“Anybody can do it,” Hernandez said. “It’s just what you set your mind to.” Hernandez is one of 67 sworn female firefighters in Austin, and she also teaches a fitness class to help prepare women for the firefighting physical fitness test.

Hernandez became a firefighter 14 years ago, a vocation she sought because after years of playing soccer as a midfielder, she wanted a job that offered physical challenges.

The Fire Department has the largest percentage of men of any city department: 90 percent.

And yet, that’s progress. The Fire Department has 975 sworn fire positions, not including fire cadets, and 6.8 percent are women. The national average is 3.5 percent. Hernandez said when she first began her career, there were only 35 female firefighters.

Just like with police, union contracts ensure men and women with the same years of city service earn the same pay for the same job titles. For instance, the Statesman analysis found that both men and women firefighters had a median hourly wage of $24.12, which is $50,170 for a full-time worker.

But as firefighters climb the career ladder, the women disappear. (The biggest exception, of course, is Rhoda Mae Kerr, Austin’s fire chief.)

There are nine female fire lieutenants who make a median hourly wage of $35.91, or $74,693 for a full-time worker. But there are 177 men with that same job and pay.

Some salary differences within job titles are explained by the fact that men had a big head start in the Fire Department: The average years of service for a woman in the Fire Department is 8.9 years.

For a man, it is 14.7 years.

Title photo: Austin police officer Terri Lengefeld greets Anna Medrano and her daughter Lilly, 4, at a recruitment drive sponsored by the Austin Police Department on Oct. 17 at Cornerstone Church in North Austin. (Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman)