The Obama administration launched an all-hands effort on Tuesday to publicize the administration’s support of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that is supposed to close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and other measures meant to assure that women are paid the same as men when they perform the same work.
The White House spent much of the morning pushing the finding that women, on average, earn 77 cents for every dollar that men earn – a statistic that President Obama used in his State of the Union address and that Democrats have been repeating ever since.
Republicans claim that Democrats are inventing a problem in order to put the GOP on the wrong side of a politically charged vote, and that passing the Paycheck Fairness Act will do little or nothing to improve the situation of women in the workforce.
Tuesday was chosen for the PFA push because it is “Equal Pay Day,” which supposedly marks the number of extra days each year that the average woman would have to work in order to earn as much as the average man.
Unfortunately for the White House, telegraphing the date in advance gave opponents time to prepare and on Tuesday, the conservative American Enterprise Institute was ready with its own analysis of pay equality in the Obama White House. The average woman in the Obama White House earns only 89 cents for every dollar earned by the average man. It’s better than the national average, but not a figure the White House is likely to be crowing about.
The White House pushed back against the AEI finding, with Press Secretary Jay Carney arguing that the statistic is misleading because many women in the White House work in lower-level positions, which brings down the average.
Of course, that’s exactly the point that AEI and other conservatives opposed to the PFA were making in the first place: the average wages of men and women differ for a whole host of factors, and using the 77 percent statistic to stoke outrage is just as unfair as using the 89 percent figure to slam the White House.
Conservatives argue that average pay is affected by many factors other than gender, including the choices people make about education, the different career paths that men and women choose, the number of hours they work per week, and whether having and caring for children affects work for both men and women.
This is not to say that, in some respects, the deck is not stacked against women. They tend to bear a disproportionate share of the childcare burden, which translates into fewer hours worked and, for extended absences related to childbirth, they face losses in experience and seniority relative to their male peers. There is also little question that a wage gap exists in a large number of fields. But to say that all of the differences are based on “discrimination,” conservatives say, is to misdiagnose the problem.
Interestingly, the argument over the so-called “wage gap” on Tuesday obscured some of the elements of the PFA that, in a less polarized discussion, might be seen simply as commonsense changes to existing law.
For example, the bill would clarify what it means for an employer to make decisions about differential compensation on “a factor other than sex.” It would also bar employers from retaliating against workers who discuss compensation levels with co-workers, except in certain cases where they are sharing privileged information.
In the end, the Paycheck Fairness Act has little chance of becoming law, but the White House used Tuesday as a chance to “lead by example.” The president signed an executive order requiring contractors who do business with the federal government to abide by the rules laid out in the proposed legislation.
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