Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Men far outnumber women in highest-paid public jobs in Vancouver, Clark County

By , Columbian City Government Reporter
5 Photos
Dr. Martha Burt, Clark County's associate medical examiner, was the highest-paid woman at all public agencies in the county last year, and the third highest-paid county employee.
Dr. Martha Burt, Clark County's associate medical examiner, was the highest-paid woman at all public agencies in the county last year, and the third highest-paid county employee. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It pays to be a man at a public agency in Clark County.

A man was the top-paid employee last year at most public agencies in the county. Just six of the area’s 35 major public agencies gave their highest salary to a woman.

To find the first woman on that 35-agency list, you’d have to scroll down to No. 22: Washougal schools Superintendent Dawn Tarzian, who earned a $130,132 base salary in 2015 before she retired. The top-earning man, Mel Netzhammer, chancellor of Washington State University Vancouver, received an annual base salary of $320,970.

Take a closer look at two of the region’s biggest public agencies: At the city of Vancouver last year, 20 of its 100 highest-paid workers were women; at Clark County, 36 were women.

There are some explanations for the pay gap. Jobs involving physical labor and public safety still overwhelmingly tend to be held by men. Because those jobs are associated with services offered by municipalities, it follows that some public agencies would employ more men than women.

However, even at local agencies where one might expect to see more women administrators — at public schools, colleges and universities — most of the top-paying jobs went to men in 2015 rather than being evenly distributed across genders. Only two of the 12 public education agencies paid a woman its highest salary.

“Obviously there is not an equal number, not even close,” said Sandra Yager, Hockinson School District superintendent, whose base salary was $128,400 last year. “Are we encouraging women throughout their careers to look into the positions of administration? … Are our current positions mirroring our pool of applicants?”

‘People choosing people’

The city of Vancouver employs a disproportionately higher number of men than women, which is one reason why men dominate the list of the city’s top-100-paid employees. In 2015, there were 660 regular, full-time male employees (73 percent) compared to 247 regular, full-time female employees (27 percent).

City Manager Eric Holmes pointed out that the majority of jobs available in municipalities are those that have traditionally attracted men, such as engineers, public works crews, police officers and firefighters.

The Vancouver Fire Department accounts for about 20 percent of the city’s workforce, but 95 percent of its employees last year were male. As of Jan. 1, 2015, only nine of Vancouver Fire’s 188 employees were women, or 5 percent. They included three uniformed personnel, two fire marshal’s office employees and four civilian support staff.

Vancouver police had 27 women last year out of 186 sworn positions, or 15 percent. They included 20 officers, a corporal, three sergeants, one lieutenant and two commanders.

What would the numbers look like if police and fire jobs were stripped out of the city of Vancouver’s 900-plus workers? Rather than 20 women on the top-100 list, there would be 34 women. That’s more closely aligned with the breakdown among the total employee population.

If police and fire were removed, the top five highest-paid women last year would be the parks and recreation director, human resources director, deputy finance director and two assistant city attorneys. The top five highest-paid men would be the city manager, assistant city manager, public works director, city attorney and finance director. (Incidentally, in April of this year, a woman was hired as assistant city manager at a salary of $168,000.)

In many cases, salary pay ranges are based on the position and job description, not the individual. That’s the situation in the city, which conducted market pay comparisons in an attempt to be competitive with other public positions in the local metro area and statewide, Holmes said. The city’s recruiting and selection process is “very transparent” and designed to minimize biases, he said.

“It’s people choosing people,” he said, “but we focus on the skills, (and) knowledge that are critical for job success.”

Last year’s gender breakdown among Clark County employees was more evenly split, which could be because of the many women working as lawyers and judges in the county’s criminal justice division, a department the city lacks. Also, the county lacks a fire department, which, in Vancouver, is even more male-dominated than the police department, pays well and has ample opportunity for overtime.

Vancouver Police Department Lt. Kathy McNicholas said it isn’t tough for women to climb the ranks in the police department to earn higher salaries, but not everyone wants a leadership role or wants to work overtime. Many women officers move around the department laterally, depending on their goals and where their interests lie. For instance, the department has many female detectives, said McNicholas, who earned a $111,983 base salary last year, plus $28,467 in overtime.

“Over the years it’s traditionally been a male profession,” she said. “It’s just slowly evolving into more and more women because we’ve come a long ways in the last 50 years.”

Only woman in room

Other city jobs with a largely male workforce include parks maintenance, street and sewer maintenance and construction workers, all of whom perform heavy labor.

Parks and Recreation Director Julie Hannon worked park maintenance early in her career in Colorado.

“It’s pretty hard work. … I don’t know if it appeals to everybody,” said Hannon, whose 2015 base salary was $148,780, which ranked her the city of Vancouver’s top-paid woman and the sixth-highest paid city employee.

Women tend to go for the recreation leader jobs, which pay much less than parks maintenance jobs, she said.

Hannon thinks the issue of men earning more than women is a problem everywhere, but that women are slowly becoming more visible in leadership roles. It’s just a matter of time before “we can get the pipelines full” of entry-level workers of both genders who will rise in the ranks in diverse occupations, she said.

“I think awareness, stressing education, looking at the sciences, realizing that out-in-the-field jobs can be good jobs … all those things need to shift to make a substantial difference,” Hannon said.

Clark County Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Martha Burt, the third-highest earner at the county last year, said the biggest impediments to women progressing up the ladder in the heavily male-dominated field of medicine are “being heard and being taken seriously.”

Burt, who has been in practice 15 years, was hired by the county last year at a base salary of $165,264. She said the subject of pay inequality for comparable jobs frequently comes up in her physician moms group. The female doctors also discuss men getting more leeway than women when they need to take personal time off for things such as child care, she said. Women are penalized, being seen as bearing more responsibilities outside of work and therefore not available for promotions — and with promotions come raises, she said.

Related story

Men rack up most overtime in Vancouver, Clark County: Duties and career interests play role in discrepancy, officials say

“I think most people don’t realize that they bring biases to whatever they’re doing,” said Burt, speaking broadly of her experience in medicine and not her current job. “For most people, they don’t set out to be discriminatory, but then it happens.”

Burt has often been the only woman in the room during executive-level discussions. When she spoke or proposed something, the reaction was typically dismissive, or, occasionally, “Oh my god, you had a great idea — where did that come from?”

Change requires hearing and valuing the ideas of everyone who comes to the table, particularly under-represented groups, she said.

Natasha Ramras, the city of Vancouver’s deputy finance director, has had a more positive experience in her field, even though the higher levels of finance are predominately male. During budget meetings, she’s frequently the only woman in the room. But she hasn’t been excluded from groups that deal with the “most interesting, challenging issues,” and she’s always felt heard, said Ramras, who has been with the city about 10 years and earned $123,544 last year.

“I’ve had a very rewarding experience here,” she said.

Clark County Councilor Jeanne Stewart, an elected official who earned $102,224 in 2015, said one factor in the public workforce’s gender imbalance is that the career trajectory of many women grinds to a stop when they have children, and when they rejoin the workforce, they’re playing catchup.

She’s seeing a search to identify the next string of potential leaders that crosses gender boundaries in all county departments. Diversity is important because “we’re a diverse population,” she said, adding that an individual’s success must be determined by merit without artificial barriers.

Recession impacts

While Clark County’s female employees made financial progress over the last decade, women lost ground at the city of Vancouver. In 2005, 17 women in Clark County made the list of top-100-highest-paid workers. By 2015, their numbers had more than doubled to 36.

Ten years ago, there were 22 women on the city of Vancouver’s top-100 list. By 2015, that number had dropped to 20.

Holmes, the city manager, attributed the discrepancy between the county and city numbers to a few factors, starting with the county’s lack of a fire department. Next, the city endured an “absolute fiscal trauma” with the recession in the late 2000s, he said. Between 2008 and 2014, the city reduced its total workforce by nearly 20 percent. Lower-priority city services — parks and recreation, maintenance, and support services such as accounting, human resources and administrative support — took a harder hit than the highest-priority services of police and fire, he said. Some of the jobs eliminated were management and director positions held by women.

Also, the city’s utility workers, who are mostly men, faced fewer cuts because their salaries are paid for out of utility rates rather than the general fund. As a result, historically male-dominated jobs were reduced much less during the recession than those that traditionally employed a greater balance of men and women, Holmes said.

He expects a generational shift in public service to occur between 2013 and 2020, when about 30 percent of the city’s workforce either will have retired or be eligible to retire.

“There’s opportunity for us to do more focused recruitment in those areas where greater diversity is represented,” he said. “We’ve got good systems in place, but we can always strive to do better.”

Promoting women

Although men tend to hold higher-paying leadership roles and key positions in the county, that’s been slowly changing for years, Stewart said. She’s seen male directors or department heads at the county promote “high-quality, very smart women” whom they’ve identified as up-and-coming managers.

“I think it’s pretty exciting,” she said. “Now I really see opportunities and doors opening for women who can show highly competent skills.”

One department in Clark County that’s evolved swiftly is the Prosecutor’s Office. When Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik took office in January 2015, there were two female senior prosecutors. Everyone in charge was male. Now, a year and a half later, eight of the 12 senior prosecutors are women, and one of the two chief prosecutors is a woman. Two of those employees promoted are Asian, and one is African-American.

“If you’re willing to promote based on performance, it just follows that you’re willing to promote both genders and people that are racially diverse,” said Golik, who has worked in the Prosecutor’s Office since 2000. “I think the public wants to know that those who are prosecuting cases are a group that are going to take gender and different ethnic perspectives into account when making decisions.”

Chief Criminal Prosecutor Camara Banfield, who has worked for the county 11 years, was among those Golik promoted when he arrived. Lately, the county has been taking steps to remedy a lack of diversity by recruiting women for leadership positions and forming diversity work groups, she said.

Research shows people tend to hire people who look like them, Banfield said.

“Unless you decide to go out of your comfort zone, you’re not going to see what you’re missing,” she said. “When you’re not making diversity a priority, then there is sexism at play. … It’s hard to break into a system like that if you’re a woman.”

Columbian City Government Reporter