Study Finds a Persistent Gender Pay Gap in Federal Scientific Departments and Agencies

While government employment is commonly believed to be controlled by neutral, formal pay structures, a new study from a team of researchers led by University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist Laurel Smith-Doerr has found that in a number of science-based federal agencies significant gender gaps in pay persist.

The researchers analyzed federal employment data and pay from 1994-2008 at the organizational level, focusing on seven U.S. science agencies that span physical, biological and engineering disciplines, as well as interdisciplinary research. The agencies studied included the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Agriculture,, the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy.

The results showed that in the agencies based on physical sciences and engineering – the sciences culturally framed as more masculine – the researchers found that more of the pay gap can be attributed to inequalities within jobs, or “within-job discrimination,” so that men are paid more than women in the exact same jobs at the same agency locations. In the agencies based on more gender-neutral sciences, such as life sciences and interdisciplinary agencies, they found that more of the pay gap can be attributed to differences in individual characteristics, so that men and women of different educational and racial backgrounds are hired into different jobs in the agency in a way that reinforces gender hierarchies, but does not produce much within-job discrimination.

“It is very easy for us in the U.S. to think in terms of individuals and to think about people making decisions, but actually it is really important to look at how organizations make decisions, and a lot of times that’s less visible to us,” Professor Smith-Doerr says regarding the importance of an organizational analysis of pay. “Therefore, you need to have this kind of population-level data and statistical analyses in order to be able to see these trends.”

Dr. Smith-Doerr is a graduate of Pomona College in Claremont, California. She earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Arizona.

The full study, “Gender Pay Gaps in U.S. Federal Science Agencies: An Organizational Approach,” was published in the American Journal of Sociology. It may be accessed here.

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