Seattle City Council Member Jean Godden has shifted her focus to gender pay equity in the private sector.
Seattle City Council Member Jean Godden has shifted her focus to gender pay equity in the private sector. City of Seattle

Today, the Seattle City Council approved a non-binding resolution "re-affirming the city’s commitment to gender pay equity" and supporting a program called "100% Talent." That program, backed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the advocacy group the Women's Funding Alliance, will encourage private sector businesses to reduce pay disparities in their own workforces.

It is not a mandatory program. It won't, say, require that businesses in Seattle give employees paid parental leave or actively recruit women for top-level positions.

Instead, to use bureaucracy's favorite analogy, it's a "toolbox" of optional "tools" businesses could use to try to close the gender pay gap among their own employees.

The "100% Talent" program suggests a list of 31 tactics businesses could use, like evaluating employee salaries, looking at why women leave the company, and expanding parental leave. Others are much more abstract, like asking companies to "demonstrate that gender diversity is a high priority." Businesses have to implement just three of the 31 recommendations in order to participate in the program. (Participation doesn't involve any financial perks—just membership in a do-gooder club that's helping to right an economic wrong.) So the real indication of whether this makes any difference will come once we see how businesses react.

Even though it's an optional and somewhat squishy program, it is notable that a business group is leading this effort and that Seattle's gender pay equity conversation is shifting to the private sector.

The problem to be addressed is stark. According to 2013 data, women who work full-time in King County make 76 cents for every dollar men make. It's worse for women of color, who, depending on their race, earn between 9 and 28 percent less than white women, according to 2015 data from the Women's Funding Alliance. The program's leaders hope to get 500 local businesses to sign on.

“Gender wage inequity prevents our region from being the best at employing the best,” Council Member Jean Godden, who chairs the committee that brought the resolution forward, said in a statement after the vote. “I am pleased that the private sector recognizes gender wage inequity as both a social justice and economic issue."

Still, it's not time to let the city off the hook. The gender wage gap is a complex problem that will take a long time to fully solve. Yet while the city continues to pass non-binding resolutions about how committed it is to addressing the wage gap, it's lagging on actual policy changes.

Two examples:

An analysis of city employees earlier this year found that the city's pay gap has narrowed. That's good news. But that report also showed that the city's three largest departments—police, fire, and City Light—have the most significant gender issues. There are fewer women working in those departments and they're working in lower paying positions.

One thing the city could do about the police and fire departments is to change the way it judges job applicants for those departments. When officers are hired for the Seattle Police Department, for example, they receive "preference points" for having military service on their résumé. That can help those applicants who are veterans—mostly men, due to the slowly changing military culture—get a leg up on the competition. In the King County Sheriff's Office, applicants also get those preference points if they've served in the Peace Corps or speak a second language. That can result in more diversity in who gets hired, including more women (who have historically been less likely to serve in the military).

Anne Levinson, a former municipal judge who audits the Seattle Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability, has been calling on the SPD to expand its preference points for years. Expanding preference points would help address the gender gap and help "draw candidates with the sorts of skills needed by the department," Levinson wrote in a January 2014 report. The policy was also recommended by the gender pay equity task force first convened by former Mayor Mike McGinn.

Yet the city still hasn't made this a reality, either through bargaining with the Seattle Police Officers Guild or through a rule change by the city's Public Safety Civil Service Commission. (There's disagreement about whether this would have to be bargained for or not.)

The city council also recently rejected an attempt led by Council Member Kshama Sawant to expand parental leave for city employees from four weeks to 12. Council members insisted they were supportive of more paid leave, but took issue with Sawant's funding source. Instead, they opted to wait for another city report on the issue due out next year.

It's good news that the private sector is making a new push on pay equity and it's nice to see Godden keeping this issue at the forefront. But the city's internal work is still far from over.