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Apr 08, 2014 - 2:00pm

White House Doesn’t Live Up to Its Equal Pay Rhetoric

Senior Editor, Digital Content

You’ve seen the statistic in the news that women are paid 77 cents for every dollar men are paid for doing the same work. It is part of the White House’s election year-inspired push for the Paycheck Fairness Act being debated in the Senate this week. However, this backfired when McClatchy found that the White House isn’t living up to the standard it holds other employers:

A McClatchy review of White House salaries in January found that when the same calculations that produced the 77 cents was applied to the White House, the average female pay at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is less than the average male pay. When counted the same way that produced the 77-cent figure, the analysis found, women overall at the White House make 91 cents for every dollar men make. That’s an average salary of $84,082 for men and $76,516 for women.

CNN’s John King called this a “textbook case” of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

CBS News’ Major Garrett looked at the White House’s explanation for pay differences [emphasis mine]:

Now the White House said its gender pay gap is tied to job experience, education, and hours worked among other factors. This matters because those explanations, according to the Labor Department, explain a good deal of the gender pay gap nationally. The big difference in these stories: When President Obama discusses this issue nationally, he doesn't mention those other work variables, only the broad figure, that 77 cents for every dollar is what women earn compared to me….

When the factors that the White House used to defend its gender pay gap are used nationally, the Labor Department says the difference in median wages between men and women shrinks to about 5 cents to 7 cents on the dollar.

Things got more awkward for Betsey Stevenson, member of the White House Council of Economic Advisors. As Ashe Schow of the Washington Examiner points out, when challenged on the 77-cent talking point, she had to back away from the categorical declaration and got more nuanced [emphasis mine]:

“If I said 77 cents was equal pay for equal work, then I completely misspoke,” Stevenson said. “So let me just apologize and say that I certainly wouldn’t have meant to say that.”

“Seventy-seven cents captures the annual earnings of full-time, full-year women divided by the annual earnings of full-time, full-year men,” Stevenson clarified. “There are a lot of things that go into that 77-cents figure, there are a lot of things that contribute and no one’s trying to say that it’s all about discrimination, but I don’t think there’s a better figure.”

The reasons for pay differences are more complicated than talking points. In the Wall Street Journal, Mark Perry and Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, examine the research behind the wage gap:

While the BLS reports that full-time female workers earned 81% of full-time males, that is very different than saying that women earned 81% of what men earned for doing the same jobs, while working the same hours, with the same level of risk, with the same educational background and the same years of continuous, uninterrupted work experience, and assuming no gender differences in family roles like child care. In a more comprehensive study that controlled for most of these relevant variables simultaneously—such as that from economists June and Dave O'Neill for the American Enterprise Institute in 2012—nearly all of the 23% raw gender pay gap cited by Mr. Obama can be attributed to factors other than discrimination.

Workforce discrimination still exists, and those who engage in it should be held accountable. However, the Equal Pay Act, signed into law in 1963, and other federal and state laws are in place to outlaw paying women lower wages for the same job.

The Paycheck Fairness Act being debated in the Senate will only empower plaintiff lawyers and get courts involved in setting salaries. Camille Olson, labor lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw, testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that the Paycheck Fairness Act

essentially invites employees and employers to dispute in court whether certain qualifications, including education, training, or experience, are justifications for disparities in compensation. In that sense, the Act represents an unprecedented intrusion of government into the independent business decisions of private enterprises by eroding the fundamental purpose of compensation; in reality, compensation functions not only as a means to remunerate employees for work performed, but also to enable employers to attract the skills and experience likely to promote the competitiveness of the enterprise.

The bill would take compensation decisions away from employers and place “judges and juries in the human resources offices of American businesses.”

If that happened, they could look at the White House first.

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About the Author

Sean Hackbarth standing in front of oil pumps near Baker, Montana.
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean has written for various Chamber properties since 2012. In 1999, Sean launched a “weblog” and never looked back, becoming a self-proclaimed pioneer of the medium.

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