Equal pay: Can Obama's action overcome a cultural taboo?

Obama signed a measure Tuesday barring federal contractors from retaliating against employees who talk pay with colleagues. But its potential impact is unclear: Such talk is generally taboo. 

Susan Walsh/AP
President Barack Obama greets people in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, during an event marking Equal Pay Day. The president announced new executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women.

President Obama signed two measures Tuesday aimed at strengthening the enforcement of equal pay laws for women.

One, an executive order, bars federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay with fellow workers. The other, a memorandum, directs the writing of new regulations requiring federal contractors to report pay and demographic data about employees to the Labor Department.

Mr. Obama signed the measures at a White House event marking what activists call Equal Pay Day – the day that symbolizes how far into the year a woman must work to earn what a man earned the previous year, on average. Obama and the Democrats have long asserted that women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.

On Wednesday, the Senate is expected to take up the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would require employers to show that any wage differences among employees are not gender-related. The bill would also apply the two measures Obama signed Tuesday to all employers. But even if it clears the Senate, it is unlikely to pass the House.

Democrats hope the equal pay theme will resonate with women voters in the November midterm elections. Getting women voters to turn out is central to the party’s prospects in what is shaping up to be a tough election for Democrats. Watch, too, for Democrats to keep focusing on the benefits to women in the Affordable Care Act, including contraceptive care.

But beyond gender politics, Obama’s action Tuesday raised a cultural question: Can the president really help eliminate the taboo around discussing one’s salary with colleagues?

“Pay secrecy fosters discrimination and we should not tolerate it – not in federal contracting or anywhere else,” Obama said in East Room remarks, flanked by pay-discrimination victims and activists.

In a money- and status-conscious country, Americans may be more reluctant to discuss their income with colleagues than just about any other aspect of their lives. And employment experts suggest that such conversations may not even be wise.

The employment website Monster.com features advice on the dangers of “talking pay” at work: It can be demoralizing to you and your colleagues. You may draw conclusions based on incomplete information. And your friends may lie, perhaps to make themselves look more successful.  

Also, the information may in fact hurt your chances of getting a raise, says Stacey Carroll, a compensation expert for PayScale.com quoted on Monster.com.  

“Salary databases like PayScale.com and other third-party sources can provide more reliable information than water-cooler gossip, and they take into account variables – such as education, experience, and skills – that can be missing from anecdotal information,” Ms. Carroll says in the article.

Still, someone who suspects they may be earning less than a colleague who performs the same job and has the same experience, qualifications, and years of service may want to have the option of a discrete conversation with that person – without risking retaliation from their employer.

At the White House event Tuesday, the president was introduced by Lilly Ledbetter, the woman whose 2007 Supreme Court case over equal pay led to the first piece of legislation Obama signed when he took office in 2009. In her job as a supervisor at Goodyear Rubber and Tire in Gadsden, Ala., employees were not to discuss pay.   

“Almost two decades into my career at Goodyear, I received an anonymous note that said I was being paid thousands of dollars less than my male counterparts,” Ms. Ledbetter said in her White House remarks.

Finding out about pay discrimination can’t be left to chance, and employees must not face retaliation, Obama said.

But the issue of employer retaliation is just one aspect of the equal pay debate. A lingering question is whether it’s fair to say that women are paid 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. The language on this assertion is important – and requires caveats.

On a conference call Monday, White House economist Betsey Stevenson had to correct herself on that point.

“Women are stuck at 77 cents on the dollar, and that gender wage gap is seen very persistently across the income distribution, within occupations, across occupations, and we see it when men and women are working side by side doing identical work,” Ms. Stevenson said.

When asked for clarification by a reporter, Stevenson corrected herself: “If I said 77 cents was equal pay for equal work, then I completely misspoke.”

“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 said. “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.”

Politifact.com notes that the “wage gap” includes significant differences in pay among different occupations.

“Second, it’s important to note that the existence of a pay gap doesn’t necessarily mean that the gap is caused by individual employer-level discrimination,” the Politifact piece says. “Rather, some portion is likely the result of broader demographic patterns.”

Women enter lesser-paying fields more than men, for example. They also tend to be more involved in child-rearing than men, and may take less-demanding, lower-paying jobs.

Republicans object to the Paycheck Fairness Act, saying it would cut flexibility in the workplace for working mothers and end merit pay. But they agree with equal pay for equal work, and that it’s illegal to discriminate based on gender, they say.

Republicans also jumped on a report issued Monday that put the Obama administration in an awkward light. An analysis by the American Enterprise Institute found that among White House staff, the median salary for women is 88 percent less than the median salary for men.

White House press secretary Jay Carney jumped to his employer’s defense Monday. “Men and women in equivalent work here earn equivalent salaries,” he said.

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