By Solano County Supervisor Erin Hannigan.

You may have read recently that California counties are reportedly not doing enough to promote gender equality when it comes to compensating employees. As a Solano County Supervisor and one of the co-chairs for CSAC’s Women’s Leadership Forum, I take this very seriously. And I speak for CSAC when I say that we will work with our counties and the Legislature to address issues identified recently in a report by the California State Auditor. However, I think it’s also important to put the report in context and acknowledge the progress that women have made in the county workforce.

Ten years ago, 10 of the 58 counties in California had female county administrators—the top staff position in the county structure. Today there are 19 women in this role—about 33 percent. According to arecent study by UC Davis there are only 17 female CEOs in the top 400 California corporations. That’s about 4 percent. We can do better in the public and private sectors, but women are leading our largest, most populated counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Alameda, as well as our smallest rural counties, including Alpine and Mono.

Any county workforce should reflect the diversity of the community it serves. Discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation and other factors is already prohibited. To a great degree, county hiring practices and salary structures are set by law or collective bargaining agreements. So, how did the Auditor find such disparity? The report looked at four counties’ “aggregate salaries.” They compared the average salary of every male employee to the average salary for every female employee without accounting for length of service or the type of job.

In many counties, men still make up more of the higher-compensated public safety and public works workforce, and many of them have served for 20 years or more. Some of the discrepancy in aggregate pay is due to women having fewer years on the job. While we should have been recruiting more women into these traditionally male-oriented jobs 25 years ago, women are closer to achieving parity among the younger workforce, and CSAC and I are dedicated to better gender representation in these positions.

The study also did not account for relatively recent changes to public employee pension and benefit plans. New employees are paying for far more of their own retirement and benefits—effectively reducing their overall compensation when compared to employees hired before the changes. Again, length of service is an important factor.

So, we have a report that says women are not paid as well as men in county employment, but what I see on the ground in my county is a relatively equal salary structure that is struggling to catch up to inequities in past hiring and promotional practices that span the public and private sector. When you compare women to men in the same job and with the same number of years in service, they are, by and large, being paid the same.

There is more work to be done. We need to ensure that more qualified women are competing for the higher-paying jobs. Where other factors are equal but a woman is making less than a man, steps should be taken immediately to rectify that situation. We can do more to track and report hiring relative to gender, because the Auditor’s report also pointed out the lack of data. Counties need to ensure that gender is never an issue in hiring, promoting or salary discussions.

But I also want to acknowledge that counties have been at the forefront of workplace cultural changes to ensure equal treatment. Counties are enhancing our existing policies to follow groundbreaking legislation signed into law last year – SB 358 by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. There is always more we can do to foster parity between men and women in California’s county workforce, but I don’t want to lose sight of the progress we’ve already made and the springboard that provides for women to do more, earn more and improve the quality of life for themselves and their families.

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Originally posted at the California State Assn. of Counties.