By Jessica Wehrman
Dayton Daily News.
Five little words were all it took to send U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty over the moon.
When President Barack Obama, during his January State of the Union address, uttered the phrase “when women succeed, America succeeds,” Beatty, an Ohio Democrat, launched into a mini-celebration on the House floor.
Democratic women lawmakers high-fived her. It was a moment rich in triumph; Beatty had suggested one day earlier to two White House aides that Obama utter those words during a meeting between Democratic women in the House and White House staff.
“It’d be nice if you write this down so you remember these words,” she recalls telling them. “And it’d be nice if the president would say this.”
Obama did just that. “Today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns,” the president told Congress and a national television audience. “That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work. … I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds.”
But how those words get translated into action remains to be seen.
Advocates say Obama could take some steps on his own, including issuing an executive order that would allow federal workers to talk about their wages without fear of reprisal. That would allow women to compare if one is paid significantly less for the same duties.
“It’s something he can do right now,” said Lisa Maatz, a northeast Ohio native who is now Vice President of Government Relations for the progressive American Association of University Women. “Quite frankly, when the federal government is acting as a model employer, often times other industries copy what they do to stay competitive. There are all kinds of reasons why he should do this.”
The 77 percent statistic is misleading, according to Janice Shaw Crouse, a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for the conservative Concerned Women for America.
Crouse said that women are often paid less because they’re given additional flexibility, may have taken time off to raise children or have to work fewer hours or may be inclined toward traditionally lower-paying careers.
“It’s a great political football, the whole war on women narrative,” Crouse said. “But Obama knows better than that. Everyone knows better than that.”
Gender politics hasn’t always translated into legislative action.
The Lily Ledbetter Act was the first substantive law Obama signed when he became president. It loosened restrictions on when women could sue regarding pay discrimination, allowing pay discrimination lawsuits within 180 days of each new paycheck that was discriminatory.
But the Paycheck Fairness Act, an update to the Equal Pay Act, which was passed more than 50 years ago and aimed to eliminate pay discrimination between men and women, remains stalled in Congress.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he expects to see a Senate vote on the bill this year. Among other provisions, the law would require employers to demonstrate that wage differentials are based on factors other than sex.
Last week Obama held a White House meeting focused on the gender wage gap. The White House Council of Economic Advisers reported that 75 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 54 are now in the workforce, up from 50 percent in 1970.
The 77 percent statistic Obama used in his State of the Union address is accurate, but incredibly nuanced, said Ariane Hegewisch, a study director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a think tank focused on women’s issues. It’s also largely unchanged. Women were paid 77 percent of what men were paid both in 2002 and 2012.
The 77 percent statistic is based on the Census Bureau’s tracking of annual wages. But other federal statistics differ. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks weekly wages, found that women earn 82 cents for every dollar men make. That statistic does not include the self-employed, but does include some left out of the Census Bureau’s account, Hegewisch said.
She said only about 40 percent of the wage gap can be explained by discrimination. The gap can also be explained by how society values certain types of work compared to other types of work.
“It’s all about the market economy,” Maatz said. In some cases, she added, groundskeepers, traditionally male jobs, are paid more than first-year teachers, which are more often women.
Among college-educated women, Maatz said, the wage gap is almost immediate. Her association did a study that found that among full-time workers one year out of college, women were paid 83 percent of what their male counterparts were.
Critics of Obama say if he was truly concerned about the issue, he could fix it in his own administration.
An analysis of White House payroll data by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that the 228 female employees in the Obama White House are being paid a median annual salary of $65,000 this year, compared with a median annual salary of nearly $73,729 for the 231 male White House staffers.
“In other words, female staffers at the Obama White House are paid less than 88 cents for every dollar paid to male staffers,” wrote Mark J. Perry of AEI.
Using those figures, the White House has a “gender pay gap” of more than 12 percent, according to Perry.
Women still earn less than men and the current gap is similar to what it was a generation ago, though it is about half what it was 35 years ago.
The gap is smallest for workers under age 35.
$691: Median weekly earnings for women (2012)
$854: Median weekly earnings for men
19 percent: Wage gap in 2012
38 percent: Wage gap in 1979
25 percent: Wage gap for women age 45-54
10 percent: Wage gap for women 25-34
$770: Median weekly earnings for Asian women
$710: Median weekly earnings for white women
$599: Median weekly earnings for black women
$521: Median weekly earnings for Hispanic women
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics