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The White House is closing the gender pay gap, so why can’t the rest of us?

The American Enterprise Institute caught the White House flat-footed yesterday with its finding that female White House workers earned roughly 88 cents to the dollar compared to male employees. This came the day before two high-profile executive orders aimed at narrowing the gender wage gap among federal contractors.

When asked about the discrepancy by reporters, spokesman Jay Carney said that those figures are based on the total of all staff jobs, and that women tend to fill more lower-paying positions than men. When you break it out by position, "men and women in equivalent roles here earn equivalent salaries," Carney said. Incidentally, this is the pretty much the same argument that AEI scholar Christina Hoff Summers makes to argue that the gender wage gap is a myth.

For a little more context, I dug up the White House salary reports going back to 2003. I calculated median wages for men and women, and plotted the difference, in cents per dollar, against the national gender wage gap as calculated by the Census Bureau.

You can see that since 2003, that wage gap has been shrinking, albeit in fits and starts. During the Bush administration, the gap shrank from nearly 25 cents in 2003 to fewer than 20 cents in 2008. The current gap of roughly 12 cents is higher than D.C.'s five-cent gender gap, and roughly congruent with the rest of the Federal workforce, which has an 11-cent gap.

It's important to note that AEI and other commenters are correct when they argue that aggregate wage gap numbers are a blunt instrument. The gap is caused less by overt discrimination against women, and more by the fact that women tend to be employed in lower-paying fields than men. But this doesn't mean we should wash our hands of the issue and walk away. A more reasonable response would be to ask why women are in lower-paying jobs, and particularly why women tend to choose college majors that lead to lower-paying careers. Better support for maternity and family leave wouldn't hurt, either.

And as the White House figures show, it is possible to reduce that wage gap over time. How has Executive Office hiring changed over the past ten years in order to make that happen? Why has the White House gender gap shrunk, while it remains stubbornly persistent across the rest of the U.S.? Instead of getting lost in the gender-gap weeds, as Jay Carney did yesterday, a stronger response would have been to point to these very figures and use them to lead by example: "If the White House can shrink its gender pay gap, the rest of the nation can too."

One final thing that got lost in yesterday's AEI kerfuffle: today's executive orders - one to force federal contractors to let employees discuss their earnings, and another to make contractors post detailed salary breakdowns by race and gender. As my colleague Lydia DePillis noted earlier today, these policies don't just benefit women - they're good for men too.