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Women-unfriendly Seattle must fix its status as the 73-cent city

Seattle women last April were surprised to find that on average, women are paid 73 cents on each dollar that men are paid. Credit: Courtesy of Creator Apps

What if you lived in a city where you think women are doing well — or at least better than in most places — and then you find out that’s just not true? And, what’s more, you learn this city is the worst — rock bottom worst — of any of the nation’s 50 metropolitan regions?

That shock occurred last April when women all over Seattle woke up to read that Seattle businesses, on average, pay women 73 cents on each dollar that men are paid, contrasted with 77 cents nationally. Based on this grim discovery, the Seattle Women’s Commission challenged Seattle leaders to look into the situation, starting with city government's own wage gap.

How wide is the City of Seattle employee wage gap? It turned out the pay gap isn’t quite as wide as in the city as a whole: Women in city government earn 90 cents on the dollar. But it’s worse in certain departments (among them Seattle City Light and the Seattle police and fire departments). To make matters worse, the study showed that two-thirds of the city’s employees are male and that, at the time of the study last year, only one of the city’s 18 highest paid employees was female.

Following the release of early numbers, then-Mayor Mike McGinn convened the Gender Equity in Pay Taskforce, comprised of educators, labor, business and women’s leaders.

Meanwhile, I — in my role as a councilmember, who also lived the wage gap in the past and remains an outraged feminist — began researching policy directions, meeting with community leaders such as the Women’s Funding Alliance, Legal Voice and the Women’s Commission. At the same time I participated on the mayor’s task force, working for a unified city solution.

Our combined efforts initially managed to get funds into the 2014 budget to work on such solutions as figuring out what to do with the astonishing but little-known fact that the city does not offer any maternity/paternity pay. In other words, new moms are expected to go back to work the next day, unless they have saved up vacation or sick leave.

From there, the task force really dug in and came up with a rich series of recommendations, presented formally to new Mayor Ed Murray in March. Following the release of these recommendations, the mayor, Personnel Director Susan Coskey, Office of Civil Rights Director Patricia Lally and I met to consider first steps. The work plan, spelled out in a resolution passed last Monday, includes specific actions, among them:

  • The Personnel Department is working with city departments to provide a deeper analysis of citywide gender data by the end of the summer.
  • Where disparities exist, the Personnel and Civil Rights offices will identify practices that may contribute to solutions and make recommendations for adjustment.
  • Personnel and Civil Rights will develop training to address gender equity, focusing on institutional and structural sexism.
  • Personnel will partner with the City Council to study paid parental leave and identify best practices and strategies to provide that leave.
  • The city will review, modify and propose additional family-friendly practices.
  • The two departments will determine how to implement a more consistent approach to performance management and employee discipline.
  • Personnel will create and manage a recruitment program for outreach to diverse and under-represented populations.
  • The two departments will provide targeted and increased opportunities for career growth for individuals in under-represented employee groups.
  • Personnel will revise the city’s employee information collection process to include an option for transgender employees.
  • Before the end of 2014, the mayor and I will conduct a series of outreach meetings to gather input and seek to close the gender wage gap in the private sector.

Getting the city’s act together first is a good idea, but it is not too soon to start thinking about the region and its 73-cent chasm. When the figures first came out last year, Mayor Menino of Boston said that the city — also identified for its inequities — would be first to close its wage gap. We will be reaching out to find out what strategies Boston used.

Just this week, the Seattle City Council took an historic vote, approving a $15 minimum wage that will be phased in beginning next April. Since a majority of low-wage workers are women, passage is a significant step forward for gender pay equity. But it will by no means end the region’s disgraceful pay gap between men and women; that’s unfinished but priority business.

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