Congressional Staff Gender Wage Gap Worse Among Republicans, Study Finds

A new analysis of congressional salaries reveals a yawning wage gap between men and women staffers working for Representatives and Senators in Congress, with the disparity being even wider for those working for Republican and male members of Congress.

In their new paper, "The Gender Pay Gap in Congressional Offices," graduate student Joshua McCrain of Emory University and Assistant Professor Maxwell Palmer of Boston University's Department of Political Science track employment histories and salaries for 45,931 congressional staffers from 1,040 congressional offices between 2000-2014. Adjusted for 2016 dollars, the average male staffer earned $57,547, while the average female staffer only took home $51,457.

While members of Congress have salaries determined by legislation, their employees—congressional staffers—are paid at the discretion of individual legislators, each allocating their staffing budget as they see fit. Congressional staffers often find themselves pinched between the growing cost of living in Washington D.C. and low average salaries (it's even worse for congressional interns, more than 90 percent of whom are unpaid).

The problem is exacerbated for women. In the House of Representatives the wage gap between male and female congressional staffers is more than $5,500. The gap is even wider in the Senate: more than $7,500.

New working paper with @MaxwellBPalmer, prepared for #SPSA2019

The Gender Pay Gap in Congressional Offices

— Josh McCrain (@joshmccrain) January 14, 2019

The largest fluctuations in the wage gap tracked with party affiliation and gender, with Republicans and men most likely to have a larger wage gap between their male and female employees.

"You can look at individual members here," McCrain told Newsweek. "For example, Rand Paul's gender pay gap is massive. It's very big. The women he employs are generally very junior and paid less."

While the gender wage gap is minimal among new staffers of both parties, reflecting equitable starting salaries, the gap widens over time. A woman staffer with five years of experience will encounter a 50 percent larger pay gap in a Republican congressional office. Republicans were also less likely to have women in senior positions.

"The largest gap is consistently in Republican offices with male members of congress," McCrain tweeted. "However, the gap persists regardless of party and member of congress gender."

Part of the gap can be explained by seniority, since women make up 55 percent of congressional staffers but hold only 34 percent of senior staff positions. But the wage gap persists when selecting for only senior staffers, with more senior staff positions even more likely to reflect the disparity. Among the top three positions in each congressional office, the gap between men and women is approximately $10,900 in the House and $9,900 in the Senate. Experience is similarly stratified, with men earning a "significantly larger premium" than women per year on the job.

McCrain and Palmer take particular care to note how consequential congressional staffers can be to legislative outcomes, citing studies about how substantially they influence legislation, shape agendas, frame constituent opinions to members of congress and even conduct much of the work the public associates with the Representative or Senator themselves. All of this means that a wage gap among staffers is likely to have effects that reverberate far beyond just the material conditions of congressional employees.

It's an area McCrain hopes to investigate further. "We'd like to randomly assign staff to offices based on gender, but we can't do that, so it's tricky," McCrain said. "But we can look at correlations between offices with female staff who pay them well and their legislative outcomes."

Rather than explicit discrimination driven by individual prejudices, the authors said a selection effect is likely at work. "What's always really hard to disentangle in these studies is whether or not there's actual wage discrimination," McCrain said. "We're making zero statements about discrimination. We are describing how salary dynamics work in Congress."

McCrain added that women congressional staffers are more likely to find the nature of the institution more hostile, citing the three-year waiting list for congressional daycare as one possible factor.

"You could have female staffers filtering out of Congress. That's something that could drive this," McCrain explained. "You're overworked and underappreciated. The people who stick around are different. It's really systematically difficult, based on the institution, for women to stick around even if they wanted to."

McCrain and Palmer will present their paper "The Gender Pay Gap in Congressional Offices" at a Southern Political Science Association conference in Austin, Texas on Saturday.