Pay gap growing between men and women working for L.A. County

Los Angeles County firefighters battle a commercial fire in Hawthorne last week. A state audit found that only four of 622 fire captains in Los Angeles County were women.
Los Angeles County firefighters battle a commercial fire in Hawthorne last week. A state audit found that only four of 622 fire captains in Los Angeles County were women.
(Kevork Djansezian)

A state audit released Tuesday found a significant – and growing – gap in the average pay for men and women working for several large California counties, including Los Angeles.

Women in Los Angeles County’s workforce made on average 76% of what their male counterparts made last year, down from 80% in the 2011 fiscal year.

The audit by the California State Auditor also looked at the pay gap in Orange, Fresno and Santa Clara counties between the 2011 and 2015 fiscal years.

On a national level, women’s median annual earnings were 78.6% of men’s in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The state audit found the average pay for women in the four counties varied from 73% to 88% of that given to men. Santa Clara had the lowest disparity and Orange County’s gap was the highest.


In each of the four counties, the gap widened slightly over the five-year period examined, but the trend was most marked in Los Angeles County.

The auditors noted that the pay gap generally appeared to be due to women being concentrated in lower-paid positions, rather than in disparities between men and women doing the same jobs. They found that women generally made up a majority of full-time county workers, but were outnumbered by men in classifications where average pay was more than $160,000.

For instance, the report noted that only four of 622 fire captains in Los Angeles County, and fewer than 10% of sheriff’s deputies in Orange County, were women. Fire captains in Los Angeles made on average almost $245,000 a year, and Orange County sheriff’s deputies made more than $210,000 on average.

In Santa Clara County, auditors found women held a majority of highly paid healthcare positions: female physicians outnumbered men 118 to 104.

Santa Clara was also the only one of the four counties where hiring managers were required to document their reasons for picking one qualified candidate over others, according to the report. The auditors recommended that the other counties put similar rules in place.

“Understanding each county’s hiring rationale is critical to evaluating whether county employers are treating men and women equally by basing selection decisions on objective and job-related criteria,” the auditors wrote.

Los Angeles County Chief Executive Sachi Hamai -- a woman and one of the highest-paid county employees at $355,000 a year -- wrote in a response that the county already requires a “plethora of documentation” on job candidates’ skills and qualifications and has an appeals process for candidates who are not hired.

L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said women were strongly represented among county department heads and their deputies. But she wants to push to increase recruitment and hiring in male-dominated areas such as the Fire Department, and to look at whether physical tests that often weed out female applicants are necessary.


“I think generally government has always been better than the private sector at equalizing pay for similar work,” she said. “...But for me, I don’t want there to be any disparity. I want us to keep pushing until the pay is absolutely equal, the opportunities are absolutely equal.”

The audit report also noted that women were more often hired at the lowest salary for their position than men and that pay disparities sometimes continued when workers received raises based on a percentage of their original salary.

Labor economists who have studied the gender pay gap said the report’s finding largely mirror what has been found at the national level.

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said the report was consistent with other research that has found that “women and men tend to work in different types of jobs and this is usually the biggest factor explaining an overall pay gap.”


But she noted that women were now more highly educated than men on average, so it was “surprising” not to see the gap narrowing more quickly.

Alec Levenson, a senior research scientist at USC’s Marshall School of Business, noted that women were still more likely than men to have interrupted careers to care for children or elders, meaning they may have “substantially less experience” than the men they are competing against when they return to the workforce.

“So the patterns we see in the end, like in this county employment data, can be said to reflect the existence of discrimination against women, but a lot of that discrimination is societal under-investment in the services all families need to support their dependents, not outright bias against hiring women to work in specific jobs,” he said.

Levenson said requiring more documentation of the rationale behind hiring could help “alleviate either conscious or unconscious bias on the part of hiring managers.”


Ariane Hegewisch, program director of employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, agreed.

“If decision makers know that they’re being held accountable, bias becomes reduced,” she said.

But Sawhill noted that managers may not be honest about their reasons for picking one candidate over another.



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