Why are we still fighting about whether women deserve equal pay?

Senior advisor Valerie Jarrett reacts as President Barack Obama signs executive orders on equal pay at the White House.
(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT))

Happy Equal Pay Day.

Happy what?

According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of women’s groups, civil rights groups and labor unions, Equal Pay Day commemorates the continuing American gender wage gap. “This date,” says the group, “symbolizes how far into 2013 women must work to earn what men earned in 2012.”

According to the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative nonprofit policy group that resists the portrayal of women as a victimized class, Equal Pay Day is a “faux holiday” invented by “liberal women’s groups” in order to expand the reach of the federal government.


So what, exactly, is the gender wage gap?

Depending on how you calculate it (using hourly wages, weekly wages, full-time salaries or part-time wages), it’s either 77 cents on the dollar, 81 cents on the dollar, 84 cents on the dollar, or even a mere 4 cents on the dollar.

But everyone – and can I get a “kumbaya” please? – agrees that a wage gap exists. Don’t fall over, but conservatives are even willing to concede that some of it may be attributable to gender discrimination. (See the seventh paragraph of IWF Executive Director Sabrina Schaeffer’s conference call with reporters, here.)

For obvious symbolic reasons, President Obama chose today to put his pen to two executive orders aimed at narrowing the gap. One will require federal contractors and subcontractors to provide the Department of Labor with compensation information about their employees by gender and race.

The other will forbid federal contractors to retaliate against employees who discuss their compensation, or someone else’s.

Is there really an argument to be made in favor of forbidding employees from discussing their wages if they feel like it?

Yes, there is. As Schaeffer told reporters Monday:

“Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees already have the right to dicuss their own salaries and benefits with coworkers. Employers are allowed, however, to prohibit employees from discussing their salaries and benefits with those outside of the organization, or from discussing the salaries of coworkers who have not disclosed their salaries, both of which are sensible limits. There are legitimate reasons employers might want to discourage too much sharing about salaries: Sometimes managers have to offer a raise to retain a valued employee who has received a better offer; sometimes someone with fewer years in an organization provides more value and therefore earn more, which can breed resentment among older, longer serving staffers.”

Kind of a paternalistic argument for a group that fancies itself women’s advocates. (Also, total digression, but can’t help but mention that the IWF also features a story on its website called “The Snake Pit: Michelle Obama’s Hell Hole of an East Wing.)

Besides the practical goal of narrowing the wage gap, the president is hoping his executive orders, along with efforts to raise the minimum wage, will appeal to the all-important bloc of women voters as Democrats face the potential loss of the U.S. Senate in 2014.

(And maybe he was trying to goose the Senate a little bit, which is tentatively scheduled to vote Wednesday for the third time on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would beef up ineffective federal laws that are supposed to prohibit gender-based wage discrimination.)

Republicans, of course, are pinning their hopes on the continuing unpopularity of Obamacare to drive 2014 turnout, but the latest polls suggest that may not be a sure bet. As U.S. News and World Report’s Robert Schlesinger wrote last week, “Obamacare remains way, way, way more popular than its chief critics, Republicans in Congress.

As for the wage gap, conservatives have taken an interesting tack: They want to dismiss it as overblown, but exploit it when it serves their purpose.

In February, the American Enterprise Institute published a comparison of salaries of men and women who work in the White House. It turns out that while approximately equal numbers of men and women are employed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the wage gap is 12%.

Women earn only 88 cents for every dollar a man earns. In 2013, a woman in the White House earned a median salary of $65,000, compared to $73,729 for men.

Obama’s senior advisor Valerie Jarrett told CNN on Tuesday that men and women who work at the same level in the White House earn exactly the same pay; the gap, she said, is attributable to the number of younger, less experienced women on the payroll.

Does this mean the president is a big old hypocrite, and therefore we should ignore his efforts to close the wage gap?

Au contraire.

The White House should be applauded for its wage gap, which is narrower than the national average. Let’s not make perfection the enemy of progress.


robin.abcarian@latimes.comTwitter: @robinabcarian