As Obama spotlights gender gap in wages, his own payroll draws scrutiny

New York Times News ServiceApril 7, 2014 

— President Barack Obama on Tuesday will call attention to what he has said is an “embarrassment” in the United States: the fact that women make, on average, only 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns.

But critics of the administration are eager to turn the tables and note that Obama’s White House fares only slightly better. A study released in January showed that female White House staff members make on average 88 cents for every dollar a male staff member earns.

The dueling statistics reveal the political sensitivities around a set of gender-related issues that could be critical in the midterm elections this fall. Those include pay equity, family leave, preschool and child care.

Obama and his Democratic allies are trying to portray Republicans as insensitive to the concerns of women, in the hopes of capitalizing on the kind of lopsided female support that helped Obama win the White House in 2008 and 2012. On Tuesday, Obama is to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from penalizing employees who discuss their compensation.

This week, Democrats in the Senate are to begin considering the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would add new regulations on how private companies pay their employees. Democratic lawmakers are seeking to overcome an expected Republican filibuster of the bill, which faces stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled House.

“The more light you can shine on wages, the better,” said Heidi Hartmann, the president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Who knows how much stronger enforcement it will lead to. But I think the publicity - the fact that people will hear about it and know about it - will help.”

Even as Obama seeks to make an issue of the gender gap in compensation across the country, however, his own hiring is facing some scrutiny. The recent study, by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, showed that the median annual salary for women in the White House last year was $65,000, while the median annual salary for men was $73,729. The study was based on White House salary data.

The pay in the White House most likely mirrors the situation across the federal government, Hartmann said. “Women still tend to have lower pay grades than men do, because the men, on average, have more years of experience.”

Jay Carney, the president’s press secretary, said the statistics for White House staff members reflect the fact that women fill more lower-level positions than men. But he said that women and men in the same positions at the White House are paid the same, and that many of the women hold senior positions.

“Men and women in equivalent roles here earn equivalent salaries,” Carney said. “Some of the most senior positions in the White House are filled by women, including national security adviser, homeland security adviser, White House counsel, communications director, senior adviser, deputy chief of staff.”

He said that the 88-cent statistic was misleading because it aggregates the salaries of White House staff members at all levels, including the lowest levels, where women outnumber men.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, said the 77-cent statistic that Obama has often cited was misleading for the same reason, because it aggregates salaries for the U.S. workforce. “The wage gap is real, but the White House does itself a disservice - and embarrasses itself in the process - by grasping for misleading statistics that don’t tell the whole story,” Buck said.

Boehner has long opposed new rules on equal pay, saying they are unnecessary because existing laws already prohibit workplace discrimination.

Obama has come under sustained criticism for appointing more men than women to his administration, though the gender breakdown of the White House staff itself is about even.

A study by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, for example, found that women make up 35 percent of the president’s Cabinet. Although that is one of the highest proportions ever, it is down from the 41 percent hiring level during the Clinton administration.

“For men who are president, they have to make a conscious decision that they want to bring new faces into the mix,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics. “It’s natural. And when you’re the president of the United States, you want to be sure you can trust the people around you, that you know them, and that you’ve had a long-term relationship with them.”

Referring to Obama’s senior adviser, Walsh added, “That’s one of the reasons Valerie Jarrett is there.”

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