President Obama signed an executive order on Tuesday designed to address the male/female pay gap among federal contractors. On a related note, Senate Democrats pushed to open a debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act, but were blocked by the GOP.
The executive order requires contractors to publish data on wages, race, and gender, to make sure they're paying employees in compliance with the law. It also protects employees who wish to compare salaries from employer retaliation. The Obama administration also hopes that while the order only covers federal contractors, other companies will voluntarily submit similar information, leading to more discussion on the matter even in the private sector.The Paycheck Fairness Act would require this kind of information from
all employers, rather than only federal contractors.
"As is often said, sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington."If federal contractors know they could be identified and sanctioned for failing to provide equal pay, that decreases the chances that women will be paid less than men for the same job."
The order may also make it easier for employees to take advantage of rights they already have.
"The Lily Ledbetter Act increased the amount of time that workers had to sue for wage discrimination; however, having more time will not help if workers do not know that they are making less than other comparably skilled workers," explained Sarah Ovink, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "If workers are able to openly discuss wages and compensation with their peers, they will be more likely to find out about potentially discriminatory employment situations."
It's clear that women overall still earn less than men do, despite attempts to promote wage equality. Data published in The New York Times in 2012 showed that the median earnings for women (depending on age group) varied from 73 percent to 91 percent of earnings for men. What's not quite as clear is why this happens.
One possibility highlighted by Joanna Hunter, assistant professor of sociology at Radford University, is that women are essentially penalized for taking time to birth and care for children.
"The biological reality is that women bear children and men don't," she said, pointing out that America -- unlike most advanced European nations -- does not mandate paid maternity leave. The only resource mothers have under federal law comes from the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows for 12 workweeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child.The best way to achieve equal pay for equal work, without penalizing people for having children and raising families, could be to implement family-friendly policies at the state and federal level, Hunter suggested. A
Pew study published in 2013 showed that out of 38 nations, the U.S. ranked lowest in government-supported parental leave.
Even though the Paycheck Fairness Act doesn't address issues such as parental leave, Hunter feels it's a step in the right direction.
"It’s not as if the law gets passed and the next day every woman wakes up and gets an 11-percent raise," she said. "However, if we start to build this into our culture, then over time we might see more parity."
The act would also make it easier to litigate wayward employers, according to Toni Calasanti, professor of sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
"Although gender-based discrimination is already illegal, there is a difference between saying this and actually holding businesses legally accountable for this," she said.
"Winning court cases based on challenging such pay discrepancies is the key -- and as we all know, what happens in court is based on legal technicalities and not necessarily morality or ideals of equality -- and this has been incredibly difficult as, to date, employers can use any number of reasons to justify pay differentials. The Paycheck Fairness Act is designed to eliminate a few of the loopholes that allow employers to continue to discriminate, such as making them prove that differences are based on job-related factors, such as education or experience; at present, employers can pretty much point to any factors even if not job-related."
Of course, not all the motivations behind this push are necessarily benign.
"Women are a major Democratic constituency, and polls suggest that the Democrats are facing an enthusiasm gap in the midterm elections," Farnsworth said. "Focusing on gender disparities in wages may shrink the enthusiasm gap as well as the pay gap."
What's perhaps surprising is the strong GOP opposition to the act.
"What’s strange is that Republicans don’t blunt the Democrats’ advantages with women by taking this plan on as well," Farnsworth said. "This is not a measure likely to cost taxpayers much, after all."
While some opposition may be based on free-market principles, Hunter suggested some of it could also be just plain stubbornness.
"I think that some Republicans are bound and determined to oppose everything Barack Obama does no matter what," she said.But it's not quite that simple. Even among Americans who don't necessarily oppose Obama, there could be a sense that this talk of discrimination is unnecessary fuss.
"I think there is a perception on the Right that we’ve dealt with this, that these problems are over," Hunter continued. "There’s a very strong contingent of Americans who truly believe that the problem with inequality is that we talk about it too much; that if we would stop talking about it so much, we would truly become a post-racial society."
A quick look at the past may dispel this notion, however.
"If we look to the past, as recently as the 1960s, it was not illegal for companies to request 'good-looking' women employees or to specify jobs for men and jobs for women," Ovink pointed out. "Few Americans would wish to return to those days, when, arguably, employers were much more free to set wages and conditions of employment."
Still, when it comes to addressing the issue of gender-based discrimination, Democrats don't always come out as quite the champions of equality they might hope to be seen as."One of the things that has always frustrated me about Obama is the way he talks about women when he ," Hunter said. "For example, he gives speeches and he says women are our wives, our mothers, our daughters. "
This topic seems to be one that Democrats will return to in the future. Whether or not Republicans will come on board as an effort to rebrand their image -- as some strategists have suggested they should -- remains to be seen. In the meantime, the president has once again shown a willingness to forge ahead with executive orders when he feels Congress will not cooperate.
Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images