Obama to sign two executive orders aimed at narrowing gender gap in wages


President Barack Obama speaks at Bladensburg High School in Bladensburg, Md., Monday, April 7, 2014. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

President Obama will take two executive actions Tuesday aimed at narrowing the wage gap between men and women, forcing federal contractors to let their workers discuss their earnings with one another and to disclose more information about what their employees earn.

The push by Obama, who also is commemorating Tuesday as “National Equal Pay Day,” is part of a broader effort by Democrats to increase turnout among female voters during the 2014 midterm elections, which party strategists consider critical to limiting Republican gains this fall.

One of the new measures is an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their salaries with one another. The other is a presidential memorandum ordering new rules for contractors to file data with the federal government showing how they compensate employees, including by sex and race.

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said Monday that the two policies aim to address the “pay secrecy” that often keeps workers from seeking more equitable compensation.

“Unfortunately, pay inequity is a real and persistent problem that continues to shortchange women, their families and our economy as a whole,” she told reporters in a conference call.

Senate Democrats are hoping paycheck policy will be a smart play by focusing attention on the fight for equal pay. However, opponents say it's less about the wage gap and more about politics. (Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)

The first bill that Obama signed into law in 2009 was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which gave employees more time to file discrimination claims. Jarrett said the administration is disappointed that Republicans in Congress have opposed another bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which includes reforms like the ones that Obama is applying to federal contractors.

But Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, wrote in an e-mail that the Paycheck Fairness Act is “a desperate political ploy and Democrats are cynically betting that Americans aren’t smart enough to know better.”

Kukowski said the proposal “cuts flexibility in the workplace for working moms and ends merit pay that rewards good work — the very things that are important to us.”

Obama and his aides often say that women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, which compares the annual earnings of women working full-time jobs over the course of a year with the earnings of men working the same amount of time. Some academics argue that the gap between the sexes is smaller if you account for a number of variables, including an employee’s length of time in the workforce, specific occupation and education level.

Even the most conservative estimates, however, suggest that women earn 5 to 12 percent less for doing similar jobs as men.

“I don’t think there’s a better figure,” said Betsey Stevenson, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, who also spoke to reporters on the conference call with Jarrett. “What we do know is there are more things we can do to close that gap.”

Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, said in an interview that the new requirements could spur companies to take voluntary measures to equalize salaries.

Women in the United States earn about 81 cents for every dollar that a man earns.

“One of the problems in the law is pay discrimination goes undetected,” she said, “This is going to put employers in a place where they’re going to take the right steps, and look for pay disparities and correct them immediately.”

One of the reasons women continue to earn less than men on average is that they work in lower-paying fields, Goss Graves said. Roughly two-thirds of all workers who were paid minimum wage or less in 2013 were female, she added.

“A big part of the wage gap stems from the fact that women-dominated jobs simply pay less,” she said.

The White House itself is not immune to inequalities: An analysis by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that the median salary for female White House staffers was 12 percent lower than that for male staffers.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the number “is better than the national average” and said women who work the same jobs as men at the White House are paid the same. He said the two deputy chiefs of staff at the White House — one man and one woman — earn the same salary, while more than half of 16 department heads are women.

“What I can tell you is that we have as an institution here have aggressively addressed this challenge,” he said.

Mark Perry, an economics professor at the University of Michigan at Flint who wrote the AEI study, said the wage gap might reflect women and men having different roles within the White House, rather than discrimination.

A senior administration official said the White House makes it a priority to hire women and diverse talent at all levels.

“While we still have work to do, we believe that our focus on hiring more young talent, especially women, to work in the White House is the right thing to do to build a strong and diverse staff that can advance in this and future administrations,” said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss personnel matters.

“We have also made an effort to advance women through the ranks within the White House, as shown by the number of women in senior positions whom have been promoted from within,” the official said.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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