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Local governments show room for improvement in gender pay equality

From the very birth of this nation, the words “All men are created equal” never really meant all men, and it certainly didn’t mean women. 

That’s perhaps why all corners of this nation have seen seemingly endless protest since late spring; some compare the recent activity on behalf of Black Lives Matter to the protests of the Civil Rights Era in that they’re demanding justice and equality for segments of the population that have experienced discrimination enshrined in law, but they’re also comparable to another era of American history, when another segment of the population marched against discrimination enshrined in law. 

They were the suffragettes — women who for more than 130 years weren’t allowed to vote in U.S. elections. 

But just as racial discrimination did not end with the Civil Rights Era, gender discrimination did not end 100 years ago when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on Aug. 18, 1920.

Gender discrimination in the workplace still hasn’t been eliminated, but much progress has been made. For a long time, that discrimination manifested itself by excluding women from the workplace and from certain professions. Today, that’s far less common, but a great disparity still exists. 

As The Smoky Mountain News delved into public records of people employed in municipal and county government, a few things became abundantly clear. Although employed at rates nearly equal to men, top decisionmakers are rarely women. And even when they are, many still don’t earn what men in similar positions earn. 

During the investigation, SMN compiled a list of more than 1,800 full-time salaried employees from 11 local governments in our four-county focus area. The highest-earning positions were overwhelmingly held by men — just six of the top 20 salaries go to women, even though the highest earners in six of 11 local governments are women. 

Women made up 47.4 percent of all employees, despite comprising 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, but the numbers only get worse from there. 

Of the top 10 percent of all salaries (182 people), 87 were earned by women (47.8 percent) and 95 were earned by men (52.2 percent). Of the top 25 percent of all salaries (454 people), 214 were earned by women (43.9 percent) and 240 were earned by men (56.1 percent).

In addition to getting the short end of the stick on high-paying jobs, women also bear the brunt of the work associated with low-paying jobs. Of the bottom 10 percent of all salaries (182 people), 101 were earned by women (55.5 percent) and 81 (44.5 percent) were earned by men. Of the bottom 25 percent of all salaries (454 people), 250 were earned by women (55.1 percent) and 204 were earned by men (44.9 percent).

Some local governments, whether city or county, have done a fair job of working toward greater workplace equality. Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties all have a substantial number of female employees, and the Town of Sylva has a long tradition of women in leadership roles — at one point boasting a female mayor, town manager and chief of police. 

Others still have a way to go, like the Haywood County towns of Canton and Waynesville, where only 19 and 18 percent, respectively, of full-time salaried municipal employees are women. 

To be sure, there are several factors at play in these statistics. Some of the highest earners are people who have decades of experience, dating back to a time when women weren’t included in local government administration the way they are today. Thus, it’s not surprising that there are few women with the long careers in government that demand higher salaries. 

The other factor is in policing — traditionally a male-dominated profession. Law enforcement makes up a substantial portion of any local government’s payroll, skewing employment numbers. However, those positions are often among the lowest-paying in any municipality, which actually drags down average salaries amongst men. 

Even with all that being said, the men in our investigation still earn about 4.8 percent more than women; with an average salary across all jobs of $40,224, women tend to earn at least 3.2 percent less than average, while men take home about 1.6 percent more than average. 

It’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons of job titles, duties and salaries in many cases, but it’s also hard to overlook the fact that gender equality in the workplace — at least in the public sector — has a long way to go to reach the day when, perhaps, our nation might be able to look itself in the mirror and say, “All people are created equal.”

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