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Obama is taking new actions to try to close the gender wage gap

President Obama stands with Lilly Ledbetter on the seventh anniversary of the equal pay bill named after her.
President Obama stands with Lilly Ledbetter on the seventh anniversary of the equal pay bill named after her.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The first bill President Obama ever signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — a basic but crucial protection for women who have been paid less than their male colleagues for years but didn't know it.

Seven years later, Obama knows better than to expect this Congress to advance women's equality, so he's continuing to do what he can through executive orders and federal agencies. On Friday he announced that the government is going to start collecting data on employee demographics and salaries from all large employers, not just federal contractors.

The new move is going to expand one of Obama's two April 2014 executive actions to promote equal pay.

One of those actions prohibited federal contractors from punishing employees who discuss their salaries with each other. The other required federal contractors to submit data on what they pay their employees, sorted by race, gender, and ethnicity. The latter rule is being expanded to include all businesses with more than 100 employees, not just federal contractors. The first report will be due September 2017, and the data is expected to cover about 63 million workers.

Businesses will report the data to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on a demographics form they already submit annually. Businesses won't have to submit salary data for every individual employee, but they will have to submit demographic information across 10 job categories and 12 pay bands. Then the data will be used either to look for patterns of discrimination or to support the wage discrimination cases of employees who come forward with complaints.

Also on Friday, Obama urged Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act (good luck with that), and announced that he will hold a White House summit on "the United State of Women" in May.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, supporters say, would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by requiring that any difference in pay for employees of different genders be based on a "bona fide factor," like education or experience, that serves a legitimate business interest. It would also prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries, a rule that already applies to federal contract workers thanks to Obama's other executive order.

The gender wage gap isn't a myth, it's just complicated

On average, women who work full time and year-round in the United States earn 79 cents on the dollar compared with white men. It's a lot less for women of color — 64 cents for African-American women and 54 cents for Latina women.

Critics of this figure either say it's an exaggeration or an outright lie. They say that the gap basically disappears once you control for demographic information and the fact that women tend to choose lower-paying and more flexible fields because of child care responsibilities or personal preference for something like the humanities.

It's true that the gap gets smaller depending on what you control for, but the gap never disappears entirely. Research from the American Association of University Women has found that even during the first year out of college for people with similar educations, there is a gender wage gap:

(American Association of University Women)
American Association of University Women

Even controlling for demographic attributes that tend to affect earnings, AAUW found a 7 percent gap. In other words, a third of the gender wage gap couldn't be explained by other factors, and likely had something to do with bias or discrimination.

And even if we accept the explanations for other parts of the wage gap — that women sometimes work in lower-paying fields or often shoulder most of the child care responsibilities — we still can't ignore the role of gender bias in those realities.

It's wildly unfair to blame women for not working in higher-paying science, technology, engineering, or math fields when society subtly discourages them from doing so almost from birth, and when constant sexual harassment sometimes drives them out even when they do go to work in the field.

Nor is it fair to blame mothers for "choosing" to earn less with more flexible jobs, when gender norms saddle them with most of the child care responsibilities whether they like it or not — and when the United States doesn't guarantee them paid maternity leave or universal child care.