Two Republican lawmakers want to know why women who work for the state make less money on average than men.
Sen. Dave Donley and Sen. Robin Taylor have introduced a bill requiring the state to do a study to determine if the wage gap can be traced to sex discrimination.
"I think it's imperative to do this kind of study to clearly identify once and for all whether or not we have a problem with discrimination," said Donley, of Anchorage. "Until we do a study, all we can do is speculate."
A 1999 study by the Alaska Department of Labor showed women who work for the state on average earn 73 percent of wages earned by men. Average earnings for female state workers in 1997 were $27,929 compared to $38,245 for male employees, the study found.
That's not because the state is paying women less wages than men who share the same job title, said Jim Duncan, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration, which would do the study if the bill passed.
Duncan said his agency did a random sampling in January and found women working the same state jobs as men on average earned about the same and sometimes more. The research examined 25 state job types and found even when women worked jobs usually dominated by men, such as correctional officers, they earned about the same as male workers.
"We do not have inequities between men and women if they're in the same job classes," Duncan said.
One possible explanation for the wage gap is most women are in jobs that typically pay less than jobs held by most men - and that gets to the crux of the bill.
Donley and Taylor want to know if the state is paying less for certain jobs just because they are dominated by women - a form of discrimination illegal under state and federal law.
One example used to explain the practice is this: Suppose a company employed medical assistants and nurses with substantially equal skills and duties, but the medical assistants were mostly men and the nurses were mostly women. The employer could be guilty of wage discrimination if it paid the medical assistants more.
A national advocacy group for pay equity said studies show the more an occupation is dominated by women, the less it pays.
"Part of the wage gap results from differences in education, experience or time in the work force. But a significant portion cannot be explained by any of those factors; it is attributable to discrimination," according to a paper by the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of labor unions, businesses and civil rights groups.
The senators are questioning whether something similar is happening in state government.
"Who makes up those job categories? Is it primarily men or primarily women and is there something subtle going on there?" asked Taylor, of Wrangell.
Duncan, the state administration commissioner, said he supports the idea of studying whether the state is undervaluing certain jobs, but he predicted it would be costly.
"It's a very difficult question to get an answer to ... it's not something we can do quickly or inexpensively," said Duncan. "But if there are flaws or biases in our system we should discover those."
Donley said he doesn't know how much the study would cost, but he argued that ignoring the issue could expose the state to expensive litigation, if wage-based sex discrimination were happening.
Federal research shows the wage gap in state government here mirrors the wage gap found across the country. Other states have already taken steps to make pay equitable between the sexes, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity. Minnesota passed a measure giving raises to 30,000 state employees over a four-year period, and Washington state achieved pay equity over an eight-year period, according to research by the Washington, D.C.,-based group.
Donley introduced similar legislation 11 years ago, but it died in committee.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.