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Obama signs executive orders on pay transparency for federal contractors

April 8, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
President Obama issued two executive orders aimed at income disparity based on gender on what the White House proclaimed Equal Pay Day. But Republicans charged the president and Democrats were playing politics rather than improving policy. Judy Woodruff gets two views from Ariane Hegewisch of the Institute for Women's Policy Research and Genevieve Wood of the Heritage Foundation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama and congressional Democrats launched a coordinated effort today to draw attention to women’s wages.

Republicans on Capitol Hill said the push had little to do with policy and everything to do with politics.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, everybody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Women in the work force, and how much they earn, were the focus at the White House on this Equal Pay Day.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And it’s nice to have a day.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But it’s even better to have equal pay.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president was joined by advocates, including Lilly Ledbetter, famous for her lawsuit that led to pay equity legislation, the first bill Mr. Obama signed after taking office.

Today, he took two executive actions aimed at federal contractors. One bars companies from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay with each other. The other requires compensation data broken down by race and gender. Census data shows women make 77 percent of what men make, and Equal Pay Day marks the date when the average woman’s earnings finally equal a man’s total earnings for the previous year.

The president challenged Republicans to support a Senate bill that would make it easier for workers to sue over pay discrimination.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If Republicans in Congress want to prove me wrong, if they want to show that they in fact do care about women being paid the same as men, then show me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the Senate, Democrats, led by Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, joined in trying to ratchet up the pressure.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI, D, Md.: We want the same pay for the same job. And we want it in our law books and we want it in our checkbooks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans accused the president and Democrats of using the pay issue purely for political gain.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers represents a district in Washington State.

REP. CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS, R, Wash.: So, on this Equal Pay Day, I would urge us to stop politicizing women and let’s start focusing on those policies that are actually going to help women and everyone in this country have a better life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said both sides should take a look at existing laws.

REP. ERIC CANTOR, R, VA, House Majority Leader: It’s probably better for us to sit down and see how we can make sure that the law is being properly implemented, rather than play politics with this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The political volleys underscore the key role of women voters in elections. Mr. Obama won women by double digits in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, as did Democrats in the 2006 midterms, when they captured majorities in both the House and Senate.

But Republicans narrowly won women in 2010, when they took back control of the House. Now, Democrats are hoping equal pay will turn out women in their favor, and help fend off a Republican bid to win the Senate.

The paycheck fairness bill faces a procedural vote in the Senate tomorrow.

We explore the broader issues raised by this political fight with Genevieve Wood. She’s a senior contributor to The Foundry, a news and commentary site affiliated with the Heritage Foundation. And Ariane Hegewisch, she’s the study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

Ariane Hegewisch, to you first.

How serious is the gap in wages between men and women today in this country?

ARIANE HEGEWISCH, Institute for Women’s Policy Research: It’s pretty serious. And it’s stuck.

Women who work full-time, year-round, the most committed workers, only make 77 cents on average for every dollar made by a man. So if you accumulate that over a year, over a lifetime, it makes for a lot of less money and less money to pay for pensions and to buy cars and to invest in your family. So it’s a big issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Genevieve Wood, do you agree it’s a serious gap?

GENEVIEVE WOOD, Heritage Foundation: Well, I think the problem is the way people calculate those numbers, Judy.

Look, if you compare apples to apples, so a woman and a man in the same job, they bring similar experience to the table, they bring similar skills and education background to the table, when you look at it that way, the wage gap all but disappears.

As a matter of fact, that’s even according to the Department of Labor, who did a study on this. Where you get the larger discrepancy is when you combine all jobs. So, a high school teacher who, let’s say, is a woman, with many members of Congress who happen to be men, who make more money, when you look at it that way, it looks like men are making more.

But if you compare a female member of Congress to a male member of Congress, they’re making the same amount of money. And I think it’s really important to look at that, because we — I’m a woman. I think women should make equal to what men should make if we’re doing the same job and we’re bringing the same to the table, but I think it’s very discouraging and a disservice to young women who are entering to the work force now to say to them, you need to be nervous about this. You need not have confidence walking in to a new job and asking for a raise if you think you deserve one.

And I think that’s what this kind of — frankly, this political rhetoric actually does. It does a disservice to young women, as opposed to telling them, we have made great strides, go for it, you can make the same.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me come back to you, Ariane Hegewisch. What about this point that if you compare the same job, women and men are earning the same thing; it’s just that women happen to occupy a lot of lower-paying jobs?

ARIANE HEGEWISCH: I think Congress is a great example, because in Congress male and female representatives do make the same money. They do the same work, they make the same money.

We just analyzed the 20 most common occupations, and in none of them do women make the same as men. You know, there’s a pay gap in each of them. And if you take something like financial advisers — and there are studies on this — the women have the same training, they have the same qualifications, but they make less, because there is discrimination in who gets access to the best jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Discrimination.

ARIANE HEGEWISCH: It’s discrimination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Genevieve, what about that?

GENEVIEVE WOOD: Well, I would have to say, you have got to look at the Labor Department study on this.

They — they did that very thing. They looked at men and women in the same professions with similar years in the work force, similar backgrounds, and said the wage gap basically disappears, anywhere from 96 cents to a man making a dollar up to 98 cents. So there’s two cents we need to make up.

But I think, look, men and women make different choices. Georgetown did a great study that I thought was very interesting. They looked at what majors guys choose when they go to college and what majors women choose. Men tend to outnumber women in the top 10 wage earners, the majors that end up making the most money once you get out of college, in all of the top 10 except for one.

Women outnumber men in the bottom set. So, if you want to make a lot of money, go be a petroleum engineer. Those who major in things like visual arts, they make less money. But that’s a choice people make.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ariane Hegewisch, is it all about the choices women are making?  They’re just not making — they’re not choosing to go into the more lucrative jobs?

ARIANE HEGEWISCH: I think it’s an issue of women being more likely to work in lower-paid occupations.

The question is whether this is choice or whether it’s the way jobs are. We need teachers. And to say a teacher ought to be paid — you know, all teachers have to become engineers or I.T. professionals would be ruin to economy, because we need teachers and teachers need to be well-paid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a second.

ARIANE HEGEWISCH: The second issue is how much we — we just did a study on women working in blue-collar jobs, and a lot of those are electricians, you know, carpenters. They pay very well.

And you don’t have to pay for your education, because it’s apprenticeship. Not one of the women we interviewed had been told about this prospect by counselors in school. You know, it was all happenstance.

And then a lot of them face discrimination. And we — there are some cases of petroleum engineers or women who want to go, and you don’t want to look at what happened to them. So, it’s not quite as easy.

GENEVIEVE WOOD: Well, I was just going to say, maybe we should pay teachers what we pay congressmen and reverse it out.

(LAUGHTER)

GENEVIEVE WOOD: But, listen, I think one thing that we should look at too is if you look at young women today in metropolitan cities who are single, childless, they are actually making 8 percent more than their male counterparts in those places.

So I think there’s a lot of good news. And I think we ought to — we should talk about that, and we shouldn’t distort the numbers, which I think the White House is doing. And, Judy, I think your piece set it up. It’s a political year. They want women to think there’s a war going on against them. The fact is, women are doing pretty well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s — yes, let’s — OK. It sounds like there’s going to be a disagreement about just how serious the gap is.

But just in the little bit of time we have left, Ariane Hegewisch, what needs to be done? The president is saying, contractors who do work for the government need to disclose how much they’re paying women. They need to disclose whether women are earning the same as men.

And they’re saying that there needs to be an even playing field.

ARIANE HEGEWISCH: Exactly.

And I think the rule for contractors says, if there’s transparency — and there’s social science research to show this — if there’s transparency, the gender wage gap disappears. You know, there might be some women who are better than men. There might be some men who are better than women, and they might get paid more. But you need to have objective criteria. And that’s what they’re trying to get.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Genevieve Wood, what about this notion of disclosing how much everyone is paid on a — whether it’s a government contractor or someone else, which would require congressional legislation?

GENEVIEVE WOOD: Yes.

Well, I don’t think we ought to be forcing private industry to do such a thing. But the fact is, Judy, I think, with all these things, good intentions and what sounds good, you have got to look at the repercussions of this. And I think we should be very concerned that if we have Washington, the government telling employers, here’s what you have got to pay people, you have got to pay people in these different jobs the same amount, what you’re going to do is actually end up having employers say, you know what? If I have got to pay everybody the same, wages come down.

Things like performance pay and bonuses go out the window. That’s bad for women and men.

ARIANE HEGEWISCH: Well, employers have had to do this for a long time.

They have to monitor their pay, and they’re not allowed to discriminate. And performance-related pay hasn’t disappeared, nor have pay differences disappeared. You just want discrimination to disappear.

And the — there’s one more point. It’s not a war on women. Women are really angry about discrimination. It’s an issue that women bring to the government. And they’re trying to do something about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there.

We thank you both for being with us, Genevieve Wood, Ariane Hegewisch. Thank you.

ARIANE HEGEWISCH: Thank you.