BERNSTEIN: Progress towards equal pay

President Obama’s recent executive order should be lauded as a great step towards gender equity

Last week, President Obama signed an executive order mandating that federal contractors allow employees to discuss their compensation with one another to promote equal pay for equal work (specifically targeted at gendered pay inequality). Critics of this order — and of a bill that just failed in the Senate, the Paycheck Fairness Act, with similar goals for the private sector — point to the fact that in the White House, on average women only make 88 cents for every dollar men make. That is only 11 cents higher than the national ratio between men and women, which is 77 cents to the dollar.

Criticism that the executive order is hypocritical is ill-founded. The 88 cent figure for the White House Staff is not comparable to the 77 cent national figure. The national gap is due to a number of factors, including the female child-care burden and the predominance of women in lower paying fields. But, the U.S. Labor Department estimates that at least 40 percent of this gap is attributable to discrimination, a significant and disheartening number that automatically differentiates this statistic from that of the White House, which does pay equally for equal work, according to press secretary Jay Carney.

I do not intend to insinuate that the White House pay gap is acceptable, but it is still important to distinguish between these statistics. According to Carney, one of the reasons for the lower average in women’s pay in the White House is that they fill more of the lower-level positions available than men do, which suggests women are doing better in terms of job gains. Though we should strive for a White House and a federal workforce — as well as a private workforce — that employs men and women in close to equal numbers at all levels of positions, the White House’s pay statistic suggests that women are in fact making gains in the case of this particular employer, since significantly fewer women worked in the White House at any level 50 years ago.

This brings us back to the national statistic, and to Obama’s recent executive order. Not only is the national statistic far more troubling than the White House’s, but, contrary to critics’ beliefs, the executive order is substantively sound and perhaps not even reformative enough. It will make it easier for women to identify when they are being discriminated against — important progress — but it will only affect federal contractors, limiting its reach. Republicans counter that the order, as well as the recently failed Paycheck Fairness Act, makes companies more liable to civil suits alleging pay discrimination. Additionally, they argue that such legislation is repetitive; gendered pay discrimination is already illegal, thus making this executive order, and the Senate bill, which will likely be reintroduced, unnecessary.

Granted, allowing employees to discuss their salaries could have a detrimental impact on business. Such discussions could create a competitive or hostile work environment, and this could negatively affect the performance and quality of work of a business’ employees.

These are valid concerns, but they are small prices to pay for pay equity. Making companies more liable to civil suits over pay discrimination can help address the significant pay discrimination that does exist (again, 40 percent of the 77-cents-to-the-dollar statistic is directly attributable to discrimination). Senator Barbara Mikulski put it best when she said, “If [businesses] are afraid of lawsuits, they ought to follow the law.” Moreover, while pay discrimination is illegal, it can be nearly impossible for some employees to even find out they are being discriminated against if they are unable to compare their salaries with those of their peers, and finding out such information is worth the risk of competitive attitudes among employees.

There is no use in having an unenforceable law; this order, at least when it comes to federal contractors, makes this law enforceable, and in the private sector the Paycheck Fairness Act would do the same.

Even if the White House could be rightfully accused of hypocrisy when signing this order, it is still a sound policy choice, and any perceived hypocrisy should not detract from its substantive value. These cries of hypocrisy distract from the fact that pay discrimination is an undeniable occurrence in this country, and legislative measures are necessary to stop it.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor. She can be reached at

Published April 15, 2014 in Opinion

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