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The higher you go, the whiter it gets // Women's gains come amid gaps

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Women have reached several top administrative positions in county government, but they are most heavily concentrated in lower-paying jobs.

And while women's gains have been more impressive than those of minorities under court-ordered affirmative action, the county's worst record of compliance with court requirements is in its failure to draw women into a job category that includes plumbers, electricians and mechanics.

Those conclusions come from a Times review of county records showing that women occupy 23 of the top 100 spots in the rank of salaries. The county attorney, two assistant county administrators and the sheriff's top lawyer are all women, all making more than $84,000.

The county work force is now 43 percent female; it was 34.5 percent in 1976. Of the "exempt" staff _ the people hand-picked by top administrators for sensitive positions _ women hold 35 percent of the jobs.

County Commissioner Sallie Parks said Pinellas has done a fairly good job hiring and promoting women. But she thinks the record could be better.

"We must very aggressively be sure we're giving women opportunities for not only line employees but also true management work," Parks said.

Parks said she saw no institutional impediments to women's advance, and she expects the numbers at the top to change in favor of women over time.

There are a few cases where that has happened. Sandy Combee, director of court services for the Clerk of the Circuit Court, started as an entry-level clerk in 1962. Back then, she said, "we just didn't have women in administrative and official-type positions."

She credits a change in the way women are viewed in the workplace nationwide. A federal court order and the county's affirmative action plan from the Justice Department "got everybody thinking on a more global level."

While women appear to make the same money for doing the same work as men, the median salary for female employees is 16 percent lower than the median men's salary, the Times found.

In part, that's because women at the entry level often fill clerical jobs, while men are concentrated in skilled-craft jobs like mechanics.

The court order required the county to hire women to fill 25 percent of jobs in "traditionally non-female" categories. Those include administrators, technicians, protective service, skilled craft and maintenance positions.

The county has failed miserably in the skilled craft category, filling less than 7 percent of those jobs with women.

Unified Personnel Director Jack Houk says that's because there just aren't many women who want to go into that field. He wants the county to try to kill that section of the court requirement.

"We've been running uphill for 15 years and we're not a lot closer than we were to start with," Houk said. "We're being subjected to a goal that's not consistent with normal goals in the equal opportunity area."

That's probably true, said Nancy Christensen, owner of Key Discount Auto, a repair shop in Oldsmar.

"I've made attempts to find female mechanics, for example, and it's difficult," Christensen said. "White-collar jobs are easier for women to be accepted in. Women are kind of afraid to get into (blue-collar work), because, you know, construction workers are always more a macho-type stereotype."

Where women stand

When a federal court ordered Pinellas County to diversify its workforce, it said women should fill 25 percent of the jobs in "traditionally non-female" categories. The county has met that standard for administrative posts but has made little progress in blue-collar jobs. Here's a statistical look:

Median salary by gender

Men Women

Authority employees employees % difference

sheriff $26,147 $23,433 10.38%

Clerk $22,664 $21,971 3.06%

Tax collector $22,131 $27,472 24.13%

Property appraiser $29,765 $26,793 9.98%

Supervisor of elections $27,844 $20,767 25.42%

County Commission+ $26,148 $24,335 6.93%

Total $27,956 $23,479 16.01%

+ The "County Commission" category includes all departments under the offices of the county administrator and county attorney, who are appointed by the commission. The departments include everthing from Public Works, Parks and Utilities to Social Services.

Note: The total county workforce is 57 percent male, 43 percent female.

Source: County government