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Female leadership key in Jackson government

While men hold the highest-paying and highest number of jobs in most Western North Carolina governments, Jackson County is a noticeable exception to that general rule. 

In that county of 44,000 people, 388 employees are on the county payroll as full-time workers, and 54.6 percent of them are female. That more than flips the average across the 11 local governments whose payrolls The Smoky Mountain News recently analyzed, finding that 47.4 percent of the governments’ 1,817 full-time employees were female. 

Women aren’t just present on Jackson County’s payroll. They’re leading departments and pulling in some of the county’s highest salaries. Jackson County’s top earner, Director of Finance Darlene Fox, is also the second-highest earner out of all 11 governments analyzed, a fact that is perhaps largely due to her impressive record of service. Fox has worked with Jackson County for 45.8 years. 

Fox is far from being the sole female among Jackson County’s department heads and top earners, though women are more heavily represented among the county’s bottom earners than among its top earners. Of the county’s 10 highest-paid employees, an even 50 percent are women; of the top 25, 12 are female — 48 percent of the group, less than the 54.6 percent of women on the payroll overall. Of the bottom 10 earners, five are female; in the bottom 25, there are 15 women — 60 percent of the group compared to the 54.6 percent on the payroll overall. 

Looking at 22 director and department head positions, it’s easy to see that women are an important part of county leadership. Of those 22 positions, 11 are filled by women. These include the county attorney, tax administrator, tax collector and directors of social services, finance, GIS, transit, elections, health, human resources and IT. Positions held by men include county manager, Green Energy Project manager, register of deeds, sheriff, Soil and Water Conservation District manager and the directors of the department on aging, emergency management, planning, parks and recreation, permitting and code enforcement, public works and economic development. 

Average salaries in Jackson County are similar when comparing male and female employees, with the average male employee earning $42,932.88 and the average female employee earning $42,366 — about 100.73 percent and 99.40 percent of the overall average of $4,623,25, respectively. 

While men earn slightly more on average, they also average more years of experience. Male employees had an average 10.16 years with the county while female employees averaged 9.64 years, with an overall overage of 9.87 years. This worked out to an average $4,224.73 per year of experience for male employees and a slightly higher $4,396.73 per year of experience for female employees, with an overall average of $4,316.44 per year of experience. 

This metric makes for an interesting comparison, but it doesn’t allow for an ironclad verdict. Years with the county is not necessarily equivalent to years of experience. 

It wasn’t until 2018 that the county was able to give new employees compensation for years of experience earned outside county employment. Human Resources Director Kathleen Breedlove said that fact impacted her directly when she took her first position with the county in May 2016, before the new policy was adopted. Despite her 28.5 years of service with the state prior to joining the county, she started work at the bottom of the pay scale. Breedlove was promoted to department head in October 2018. 

This policy had obvious shortcomings for managers looking to attract quality candidates, and on June 18, 2018, county commissioners approved a revised policy that allows new hires to receive credit on the salary schedule for both direct and indirect experience. The policy includes a formula for calculating both types of experience and language tasking the directors of human resources and finance with approving starting salaries above the minimum, with final approval from the county manager. County commissioners must approve any salaries that do not meet the guidelines. They also set pay for department heads and therefore have more leeway to negotiate a competitive salary for these leadership positions. 

Breedlove said it’s unsurprising that an analysis of Jackson County’s payroll reveals little disparity between compensation of male and female employees, because the only things the county can consider when setting salaries are the position the person will be taking and the experience they will bring to it. 

Another new policy, stemming from a 2019 executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper, also contributes to equality in hiring and setting salaries, she said. The order prohibits state agencies from requesting salary history from job applicants, so Jackson County can no longer ask applicants how much they made at previous jobs. 

The order aimed to address pay disparity in light of research showing that women get paid less than men in their very first jobs, even when controlling for occupation, college major, hours worked, location and demographics, said a fact sheet from the governor’s office. However, said Breedlove, that change was “really irrelevant to any of our positions, because we have starting pays.”

When it comes to keeping pay fair, said Breedlove, the most important thing is to have a good plan in place. 

“Once you deviate from a plan, then it causes complication later on,” she said. “Adhering to the plan is usually the best course of action for consistency.”

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