Women at the State Department are concerned that they are getting paid less than men in equivalent roles, primarily due to an incentives program that critics say contributes to the gender wage gap.
The program, meant to incentivize people from high-paying industries to join public service, provides newcomers with a hefty increase in their starting salary that follows them throughout their career.
Gender pay experts say that, while the policy has merit, it’s more likely to benefit men who, they say, end up getting paid more to do the same jobs as their female counterparts.
“There’s mounting evidence and legal precedent that this policy can exacerbate wage gaps,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, founder of the Women's Foreign Policy Network and a former State Department employee.
The foreign service, in particular, has drawn concerns from employees who fear its clear internal career path and demands for regular relocation can exacerbate wage differences over time.
In the foreign service, where many spend large swaths of their careers, it’s easy for employees to compare their careers with and see differences among their peers, some say.
“You’re not just taking a pay hit, you’re taking a status hit,” said one female foreign service officer, who asked not to be named.
The department has guidelines for determining the salaries of new foreign service officers based on education and experience, placing them on a fixed salary scale.
But after that, it offers extra pay within “steps” of that scale in an “attempt to match salary.” The differences between the lowest and highest steps ranges from over $13,000 at the lowest end of the scale to over $40,000 at the higher end.
Critics say the policy hurts female employees by setting existing discriminatory gender pay structures through the government’s codified framework.
“We know that the gender pay gap starts at people’s first jobs out of college,” said Heather Boushey, chief economist and executive director at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
Even within high-paying fields like those found in the tech sector, women often are paid less than their male counterparts, according to Kelli Dragovich, the senior vice president of people at Hired, which compiles an annual report on gender wage gaps in Silicon Valley.
“If we just take gender, we’re seeing male high-tech workers getting offered higher salaries 63 percent of the time,” she said. “That’s a lot.”
According to Dragovich, the gender pay gap in tech offers averages 4 percent, but can be as high as 45 percent.
That pay gap often follows women throughout their careers, especially when future employers seek to factor salary history into their hiring, experts say.
After 20 years in the foreign service, a woman might be making substantially less than a man who started at the same time, served in the same roles, was promoted the same number of times and received the same evaluations, simply because she joined from a lower-paying job in a lower-paying field.
“That initial entry is really key because it’s setting a path by which future promotions are determined,” Ben-Yehuda said.
“Building a career path that’s stringently defined can really etch in stone what could be a discriminatory practice.”
Still, the persistence of pay differences over time could become a legal vulnerability.
“In principle it is legal to pay somebody more if you can prove that there is a clear labor market reason,” said Ariane Hegewisch, program director of employment and earnings at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
“But the question is, can they still maintain it the next year? How much does that go into the future? What people say is that, basically, after a year you have to rejustify and may need to put people who are doing the same job on the same level,” she added.
In recent years, gender pay activists have zeroed in on how early wage differences for men and women persist and widen over time.
As a result, thirteen states, including California, have outlawed the practice of employers asking potential hires for their salary history, though some of those laws limit the ban to the public sector.
The State Department is quick to note that its policy attempting to match high salaries is practiced throughout the federal government.
That may explain why internal studies have been unable to explain persistent gender pay gaps ranging from 3 to 7 percent across the federal government, even after factors such as geography, occupation, management level and union status were taken into account.
Last year, Congress requested that the Government Accountability Office study the issue for the first time in over a decade.
But Ben-Yehuda said the diplomatic corps’ focus on bringing in candidates from high-paying industries is misplaced.
“One of the things the department needs to do more is get outside of Washington and get to the communities that really represent the rest of our country,” she said.
The department, she said, would be better served by focusing on attracting first-generation Americans and first-generation college graduates.
“You don’t only want the tech workers, the real estate developers. You really do need a blend of all that America has to offer to represent the country abroad.”