This past Tuesday, called “Equal Pay Day,” President Obama kept a State of the Union promise that he would take executive action to bypass the inefficient 113th US Congress in order to settle legislative issues. Showing the American people that his administration is dedicated to fighting for equality and fairness for all whilst the Republican-controlled Congress continues to do nothing, Obama signed two executive orders addressing the gender pay gap. The first was an order barring federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their salary, and second was a memorandum instructing the Labor Department to collect statistics on pay for men and women from such contractors.
While these executive actions are progressive in appearance, many argue that the administration is simply playing politics before the midterm elections., Surrounded by a dozen working women during his address at the signing of these orders, Obama acknowledged the average gap in salary between men and women. Just as he said in his State of the Union address, it “is an embarrassment that women on average earn 77 cents to every dollar men make.” However, critics have pointed out that this statistic also applies to the offices of many elected Democrats, including the President’s White House.
According to an analysis by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, women who work in the White House earn 88 cents to every dollar male staffers make. President Obama acknowledges this pay disparity in his own institution, but maintains that men and women working the same job are paid the same salary. The fact that there is a gender pay gap within an administration that prides itself on supporting equal pay for women shows the difficult and complexity of addressing this issue.
Critics of the Obama administration’s actions argue that the statistics cited about the national and White House pay gaps are misleading. They are only averages and do not consider comparisons of men and women in equivalent jobs with equivalent backgrounds. When these factors are taken into account, the pay gap is smaller.
However, there are other factors in a woman’s pay grade that are nearly impossible to control; child-rearing roles, age, education, race, ethnicity, and where a woman lives are all factors which play a role in determining her pay. For example, if a woman leaves the workforce to raise her newborn child, she will probably face a decrease in earnings.
There is also a political component to this issue. The Obama administration says that these executive actions, while small in scope, are steps in the right direction to ensuring women will earn just as much as men. The Republican National Committee has called such actions another empty promise. According to the RNC, Democrats have waited for an election year to push action on politically convenient issues. By releasing statistics on the gender pay disparity in the offices of Democrats up for reelection this year, such as Senators Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark R. Warner of Virginia, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Republicans are attempting to make Democrats seem hypocritical.
The Republican National Committee distributed a memo to all of its members before the Senate voted on the Paycheck Fairness Act on Wednesday, reminding them that discrimination based on gender is already illegal. The bill failed, with not a single Republican casting a vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act on Wednesday; it appears the GOP is united on this issue. It will be interesting to see if this continues to surface as an election year debate the closer we get to the midterms.
Until then, this is another topic that Congress will not act on, giving the Obama administration more reason to show that their promise of executive action on the most critical issues will be fulfilled.