Government employment: Discriminating employers or complaining employees?

Image credit: Mind on fire (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image credit: Mind on fire (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A friend points me to the November 30 episode of the American Federation of Government Employees’ paid radio show “Inside Government,” in which AFGE Policy Director Jacqueline Simon argues that one big difference between federal employment and the private sector is the lack of pay discrimination. The federal government’s General Schedule pays you according to the work you do, she says, not your gender, race, and so forth.

This affects pay comparisons, since in the data government employment does tend to pay women and minorities better than the private sector. Ms. Simon, who is a member of the Federal Salary Council, believes that one reason studies like mine find that federal jobs pay more that private sector positions is the lack of pay discrimination in the public sector.

If that were the case, you’d expect public employees to report less discrimination. By “report” I don’t necessarily mean to file a grievance, which might be easier or harder in different types of jobs. If asked, you’d expect government employees to say they experience less discrimination and private sector workers to say they experience more.

But that’s not how things actually turn out. Take racial discrimination. According to the General Social Survey, 10.2% of public employees claim they have experienced racial discrimination on the job, versus only 5.6% of private sector workers. Similarly, 8.4% of public employees cite gender discrimination at work, versus only 4.3% of private sector workers. Higher discrimination in government employment holds up even after controlling for differences in the composition of their workforces.

Does this mean that the government actually discriminates more than private sector employers? On one hand, as Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker observed, competitive pressures in the labor market tend to lessen wage discrimination. If public employers feel less competitive pressure, discrimination could survive there longer. On the other hand, public employee unions sometimes engender a culture of grievance, such that public employees might perceive discrimination in circumstances where private sector workers would not.

Which explanation is correct? I suspect the latter, but who can say?

3 thoughts on “Government employment: Discriminating employers or complaining employees?

  1. I went and looked at the latest GSS questionnaire. The relevant questions read, “Do you feel IN ANY WAY discriminated against because of…?” [emphasis mine]. There are more ways of discriminating against someone than pay – assignment of tasks, opportunities, recognition, even just social interaction in the work environment.

    I thought that Mr. Biggs made an analytical error in the private sector in forgetting to exclude self-employed individuals who a) don’t exist in the government sector, and b) would be expected never to report experiencing discrimination. The figure for private-sector sexism would become 4.8% (not 4.3). I do not get the same numbers for racism as he does in the 2010 data; I get 5.2% private non-self-employed and only 4.5% all private including the self-employed. I don’t know where he got 5.6%.

    But there’s a surprise: there is one self-employed individual who reported experiencing racial discrimination on the job, and two (one male, one female) who reported gender discrimination! My best guess is that someone encountered a customer or vendor who discriminated. If that’s the case, a government worker who deals with the public could also report discrimination if someone they were dealing with asked to deal with someone who was white and/or male, even if all supervisors and coworkers were perceived as being absolutely fair.

    Note too that “yes” answers can come from white males who feel they have been victims of reverse discrimination. I ran a crosstab on the 2010 data set for racism by race. 17.1% of non-self-employed private sector blacks report experiencing racial discrimination vs. 21.4% public sector. “Other” race reported less discrimination in government, 13.3% vs. 15.3%. But white government employees reported 7.1% racial discrimination vs. 1.8% private sector. A similar disparity exists in the government sector – slightly higher for women, but a markedly higher percentage of government males reporting sex discrimination.

    And a final note: for sexism, there were only 210 government respondents in 2010 with 17 reporting sex discrimination. For racism, there was one additional response of which 22 reported racial discrimiation. I don’t have access to SPSS, or the statistical chops to compute the margin of error by hand.

  2. The Federal government does not systematically determination. There are some employees who play the discrimination game and win because the Feds tend to give in easily.

    Discrimination against blacks and women is a thing of the past in the Federal government. We are loath to admit that but it is true. We won. We should accept the victory and not pretend that fifty years of progress did not happen.

  3. Anyone who believes that racism against minorities or women is in denial. In the federal sector, over 150 class actions have been filed by African-Americans in the last decade according to a Freedom of Information Act reply from the EEOC to The Coalition For Change, Inc. (C4C).
    Many instances of overt racism may have disappeared; but the racial disparity practices and patterns persist.
    Google video: Racism in the Federal Sector

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