State auditors recently found that women who work for the county of Orange earn 27 percent less, on average, than their male counterparts – the largest gap of the four large county governments they examined.
That gap, it turns out, is even wider among people whose salaries are directly controlled by the county Board of Supervisors, who as elected officials have nearly unlimited control over who they hire and how much they pay, up to a certain wage threshold.
Among the 40 people who work as staff to county supervisors, women earn an average of 33 percent less than their male co-workers, according to a Voice of OC analysis of hourly pay rates.
This pay disparity, which is driven mainly by a lack of women in high-ranking positions, highlights the importance of supervisors leading the county by example, said Jennifer Reisch, a leading advocate for gender pay equity in California.
Orange County is not only the worst offender among the counties in the audit, but its overall pay gap "is far more significant than either the state or national full-time average” for median annual salaries, said Reisch, the legal director of San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates.
“I think it really calls for action,” she added. “The county could definitely use this as an opportunity to look at what is driving that wage gap to really see where it’s happening and why.”
When it comes to overall average pay, Supervisor Andrew Do has the largest gap, with women in his office earning 51 percent less on average than men. The gaps in in the other supervisor offices are as follows: Michelle Steel (38 percent); Lisa Bartlett (35 percent); Shawn Nelson (30 percent); Todd Spitzer (12 percent gap).
(Click here to see the pay rates and genders of all supervisor’s staffers.)
The disparities are primarily due to the fact that the highest-level positions are almost all held by men.
All five supervisors' chiefs of staff are men. And among the second highest-earning staffers in each office, four out of five are men. It's difficult to judge pay disparities among lower-level workers because nearly all the supervisors’ staff – from chiefs of staff to secretaries – have the same official job title of “executive assistant."
None of the male supervisors returned calls for comment, nor did Supervisor Steel. Spitzer commented, but only via text message.
While the pay gap in Spitzer’s office is lower percentage-wise than his colleagues, a closer look reveals examples of potentially unequal treatment of women when it comes to pay.
In June 2013 he made Martha Ochoa the only female chief of staff in recent memory and paid her $43.27 an hour. But late last year, when Ochoa left her job at the same pay rate, he hired George Cardenas as her replacement and paid him $52.65 an hour. That difference of $9.38 per hour translates to about $19,000 per year.
And Carrie O’Malley, a Harvard Law School graduate with over two decades of public policy experience, works as Spitzer’s “senior policy advisor” yet makes less than a male coworker who is simply a “policy advisor.”
O’Malley makes $37.86 an hour, while the policy advisor, Martin Gardner, makes $38.35 an hour.
In his text messages, Spitzer said Ochoa, the female chief of staff, “never held a position like that and it was a test situation.”
And for the O’Malley-Gardner disparity, Spitzer said, “Marty was below Carrie until [the] last set of raises.”
The current pay levels, in which O’Malley earns less than Gardner, have been in place since February, according to the county.
In an interview, supervisors’ Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett, said she doesn’t think there’s a gender pay gap in her office, given that she bases her staff’s pay on their job responsibilities and experience.
As for men dominating the top positions, she said it stems from who the most qualified candidates are when supervisors take office.
“I think it’s just a coincidence that the most qualified candidates that came forward at the time happened to be male as opposed to female,” Bartlett said. “If I had a candidate that was female and she was just as qualified as the male candidates, if not more qualified, then I would probably take the female candidate.”
But when it comes to an executive class in the county bureaucracy that is overwhelmingly male, Bartlett said it’s a real issue that she and others are actively trying to address by recruiting more women into those roles.
“As a female I always like to see more women in the leadership roles,” Bartlett said.
“The men tend to help each other out more than the women,” so it’s important for women in higher-level management positions to mentor women into moving into upper management, she added.
Jennifer Muir, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association – which represents two-thirds of the county government’s workforce – called the pay gap “troubling” and said the county government’s culture plays a key role.
“We know that there's an unacceptable disparity between what women and men are paid throughout county government. These troubling findings are in line with the county culture that has passively accepted this disparity,” Muir said.
“This is not 1900. Women vote, we own property, we’re breadwinners and support our families and deserve equal pay.”
A gender pay gap affects women in almost every profession, said Reisch, the pay equity advocate.
“I don’t think that there’s anyone who isn’t in favor of equal pay for equal work,” she said, adding that the question is why women aren’t making same amount and why they’re not advancing into higher-wage jobs jobs.
When women are more assertive in asking for higher pay, it often backfires, she said.
They’re perceived as “too aggressive or too pushy or demanding” while men get regarded in more positive ways.
Another factor, Reisch said, is employers setting workers’ salaries based on their prior salaries. That has led to women being paid thousands of dollars less than men who had less experience, including at public agencies, she said.
“What should matter is your experience and frankly the level of responsibility and type of responsibilities you’re gonna have in the job you’re applying for,” Reisch said.
A new state law that took effect in January, the California Fair Pay Act, expands the right of people to be paid equally for “substantially similar work” as their coworkers of the opposite gender and bans retaliation and discrimination against employees who ask about or discuss their co-workers’ salaries.
It had near-unanimous bipartisan support, including votes from Republican state senators who used to serve as Orange County supervisors: Pat Bates, Janet Nguyen, and John Moorlach. The bill was also supported by the state’s largest business and labor groups, the California Chamber of Commerce and California Labor Federation.
“We can’t go into everyone’s brains and we can’t change everything in society all at once,” Reisch said. “But what we can do is create systems of accountability, of transparency...sunshine can be quite a good cure for quite a lot of ills.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.