In a crowded mayor's race with an all-male crew of front- runners, an unlikely issue has shot to the front of the debate: equal pay for women, at city hall itself and in the city at large.

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After a national study released in April found the pay gap between men and women in Seattle to be the worst of the country's 50 largest metro areas, the city decided to look more closely at its own employees. Turns out, there's a real problem: The city payroll is two-thirds men, pays men on average 9.5 percent more than women, and has fewer women in higher-paid positions.

So the mayoral candidates—all primed to elbow each other out of the way to fill the first pothole—now routinely bring up the issue of gender pay.

Especially mayoral candidate and Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, who touts work on pay equity in his campaign ads. At the very top of a recent campaign flyer's list of promises—above all the blurbs on transit and education and police—Harrell says that as mayor, he'll "institute legislation to improve women's pay equity in the workplace," and he claims to be the "first local legislator to discuss [the] issue and take action."

Harrell's city council committee held a hearing on the matter July 3, and he's promising to "present a resolution to affirm the City's support and ongoing work" on the pay gap, according to an e-mail from his staff. (Last year, Harrell also passed a bill protecting the right of mothers to breast-feed in public.)

Some other candidates have stumbled. At a candidate forum in May, long-shot contender Charlie Staadecker admitted he didn't know about the city's pay gap; shortly before he dropped out, Council Member Tim Burgess's joke about the gap disappearing if everyone had daughters like him landed poorly. And a recent editorial in the Seattle Times spanked Ed Murray and Peter Steinbrueck for blaming McGinn for the problem, saying the blame clearly falls on "a generation of city leadership" and "socio-economic, educational and cultural factors."

Commissioned in early May by Mayor McGinn and separately by Burgess, the city's report was released on July 16, by which time council members were foaming at the mouth trying to get hold of it. Given that the city employs more than 10,000 people and uses 600 job classifications, "getting a complete and accurate analysis of gender pay across those classifications took longer than we expected," says mayoral spokesman Robert Cruickshank.

That long-awaited data shows more men reach higher-paid positions at the city—a good old-fashioned glass ceiling, if you will. Departments and job classifications that collect more women, like the parks department, tend to be paid less. And certain departments—police, City Light, planning and development—have larger pay gaps than others.

The fact that the city's workforce is only one-third female shocked both Beth Hester, the mayor's public affairs director, and Julie Nelson, the director of the Office for Civil Rights. "I've worked for the city for 23 years," Nelson says. "My departments have always been more females than males."

Hester says because the city's departments are so different in scope and structure, the problems (and their solutions) are likely to be different in various departments. "The sound bite is 9.5," she says—that's the average pay gap. "But 9.5 does not begin to tell that story."

Take, for example, the police department, whose gender pay gap is more dramatic: It's 21 percent.

"If you look in our command structure, they're mostly men," explains Seattle Police Department spokeswoman Detective Reneé Witt. But promotion within SPD is voluntary and test-based, she says, without much room for obvious bias. "If I wanted to... study, and take the promotional exam, I have the opportunity to do that." But, she continues, "I've been on 20 years, and I have zero interest in promoting." And there's a very clear reason: "I have a life outside of the department," says Witt. "And when you start to promote—sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and above—you're kind of at the department's will." (A Pew Research Center study found this spring that working moms still do 15 hours more housework and child care per week than working dads.)

Meanwhile, the fire department lacks women in higher-paid positions; only 9 percent of firefighters are female, while the department's civilian workforce is 58 percent female, according to spokesman Kyle Moore. He adds that the fire department has begun to focus on hiring more diverse candidates and encouraging them to seek promotions.

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A new task force, convened by Mayor McGinn, will soon begin to dig deeper into the wage gap data in order to start fashioning solutions—a set of recommendations on short-term solutions is due by September, long-term ones by the end of the year. In January, we should have the beginnings of a Gender Justice Initiative.

If the city can start to set its house in order, it'll be the first big step toward addressing the private sector pay gap. Says the cochair of the Seattle Women's Commission, Bridgette Maryman: "The city needs to walk the walk and talk the talk before it can encourage businesses to do anything." recommended