Women are underrepresented in city of Columbia leadership positions, and they are paid proportionately less. The issue isn’t clear cut, though — and city leadership is working to bridge the gender gap.

Two years into John Blattel’s tenure as the city of Columbia’s director of finance, he was already making $2,000 more than his predecessor Lori Fleming.

Having held the position for 15 years, Fleming was making an annual salary of $118,712 when she stepped down, according to records obtained from the City of Columbia Department of Information Services. Blattel now takes home $123,502.

While women made up on average 36 percent of the city's leadership between fiscal years 2009 and 2014, they only took home 30 percent of the income according to payroll data from the city of Columbia. That gap translates to a total loss of $705,534.

The city's leadership is aware of this inequality and is taking strides to overcome it, and directors say the pay gap is more complicated than just outright discrimination.

Blattel said he was working more hours than Fleming had to become familiar with the department and the duties of the position. When he took the job in November 2010, he said he wanted to improve the department’s efficiency. Coming from a position as the city’s internal auditor, he wanted to change how tasks were assigned and completely redesigned the format of the city budget.

He negotiated his salary with the city manager when he was hired, Blattel said, and wasn’t aware of Fleming’s previous salary. He said he believes his certifications as a public accountant and fraud examiner, as well as more than 35 years of experience in government auditing, contributed to his salary much more than his gender did.

In fiscal year 2014, the city of Columbia's five highest-paid employees were all men, a trend consistent with the past six years of data. When that list is expanded, men make up almost 75 percent of Columbia's top-50 paid employees since 2009. From fiscal years 2009 to 2014, the top paid male employee took home on average $31,440 more than the top woman employee.

This disparity is exemplified in the city's leadership, where department directors are divvied more equally between men and women, but their pay is not. This year, male directors make an average of $123,076 and female directors make an average of $118,329.

During the years analyzed, a woman was in the top five most-paid city of Columbia directors only once. Comparatively, women made up 73 percent of the five least-paid department directors during that same six-year period.

Although these numbers seem stark, they don't paint an accurate picture of the wage gap that exists in Columbia. Instead, they are a starting place for understanding the full scope of gender inequality and how it still persists.

When Margrace Buckler began her job as the director of Human Resources in 1998, she was the city of Columbia's only female department director. That lasted just a few months, until Stephanie Browning was hired on as the director of Health and Human Services.

"We were called the evil twins," Buckler said, laughing. "I guess because we were the girls and we conspired.”

Buckler said things have changed for women over the 17 years she's worked for the city, but the fact that Columbia is male-dominated has stayed the same. She suspects men are overrepresented because of the manual labor and utility-driven work that the city funds. Many women aren't qualified or simply don't want those types of jobs, which skews the gender diversity of Columbia's workforce. The inequity in pay for department directors follows a similar path.

That general rule has come from following precedent. Buckler said women have typically been in charge of smaller departments that don't generate their own revenue, so they are constrained by a smaller budget. Larger departments such as the police department aren't limited in this same capacity, and those departments tend to be led by men. When it came to divvying up paychecks, the system in place leaned in their favor.

"The historical thing is to look at the budget and don't pay any more than what the budget was," Buckler said. "Where when it was a man coming into a role, they were more willing to negotiate no matter the budget. That's changing, I will tell you that. In the past three or four years, that has changed a lot. But it's still true, and we are still operating in the constraints of where we came from."

Those changes have come in part by City Manager Mike Matthes, who was appointed in 2011.

One of his initiatives has been to implement a citywide strategic plan outlining the city's mission and the direction he wanted to take Columbia. The seven priorities detailed in the plan are customer-focused government, economic development, financial health, growth management, health safety and well-being, infrastructure and, to Buckler's delight, workforce.

The objectives to improving Columbia's workforce include "maintain(ing) a total compensation system that is internally fair and externally competitive" and "seek(ing) innovative ways to recognize job performance, capacity and leadership," according to the strategic plan. For Buckler, that means talking about pay and benefits and nixing the culture that her department was only meant to get people into the system.

Matthes said to work toward these objectives, he hired a consultant to analyze what Columbia was paying each employee compared to the rest of the market. He said the jobs that were receiving less than the market minimum have been given raises at least to the minimum, and all employees received raises to correct salaries after the 2008 recession.

“We’ve been realigning over the last two years, changing our pay system to more accurately reflect the rest of the market so we can be more competitive and so it’s fair,” he said.

Seven directors received salary increases from 2013 to 2014 above the standard 2 percent raise. Of these seven, four were women and three were men; the women received an average of 123 percent raises and the men received an average of 111 percent.

Now given more weight, Buckler said human resources has expanded from just an afterthought to a player in making big decisions.

"In a prior life, we'd go through the budget process, and if there was anything left, then we'd talk about employees," Buckler said. "Now we are doing that at the top."

Despite the steps taken to improve, the city of Columbia still allots more money and resources to larger departments, and in turn the men who run them. The problem that exists then is a lack of women in those positions.

"I'm terribly optimistic," City Counselor Nancy Thompson said. "I see more and more women at Mizzou in the advanced colleges seeking the advanced degrees."

Two years after Thompson replaced Fred Boeckmann, she continues to make less money than he ended his tenure making.

Thompson graduated from the UM-Kansas City Law School in 1985 with an interest in public service, and after working in private practice with her husband, she became the city counselor for the city of Gladstone. After hopping between other small municipalities working as a city attorney, Thompson came to Columbia in 2013 after Boeckmann announced his retirement.

Thus far in her tenure, Thompson said the statistics of Columbia's gender gap are in no way reflective of her experience. In fact, she's certain there is more to those numbers than taking them at face value.

"I don't think we can just talk about numbers without understanding how people progress into those positions, and then to look at that and say, ‘Were there other variables that kept women either from applying or from getting the position?’" Thompson said.

One variable that might be keeping women from the top paid positions, Thompson said, is that women aren't obtaining the degrees necessary for those jobs. Especially considering the trend of higher salaries for larger departments, this could offer some answers to why women aren't in those positions.

According to the city of Columbia's payroll database, the top five highest-paid director positions held by men in 2014 were city manager, the police chief, the director of water and light, the director of public works and the director of human resources. Three of those five positions — city manager, director of water and light and director of human resources — require degrees in business, public administration or a closely related field.

Of students polled during the 2011-12 school year, a similar number of men and women reported they were studying business administration and management — 66,190 men to 64,405 women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Matthes said these top five directors are basically in charge of the five biggest departments, and the fire, police, water and light and public works departments are all

traditionally male-dominated. He said he sees more women applying for positions in the traditionally male-dominated areas of the city.

“It’s getting better,” he said. “There are more female engineers than there used to be. … In public works it used to be that no women would apply, and that has changed, so that’s a nice thing. We are moving the needle on the number of women that we’re able to hire because of that, although it’s still a big challenge in fire and police.”

As a whole, Matthes said he thinks Columbia is better off than most places when it comes to gender equity in city government.

“I think we have something to be proud of when you look at gender differences,” he said. “We’re not there yet. … We have work left to do, but I know that our pay scales have nothing to do with your gender.”