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Obama signs executive order on equal pay for women

Requires federal contractors to publish wage data by sex and race, bars retaliation against those who compare salaries

Keeping with his promise to champion women’s rights in the workplace, President Barack Obama signed an executive order Tuesday that addresses the issue of unequal pay among federal contractors. While equal-pay advocates hail the move as a victory, many also say it doesn’t go far enough.

The executive order addresses the federal government’s gender wage gap by mandating that contractors publish wage data — by gender and race — to ensure compliance with equal-pay laws. The order also prohibits contractors from retaliating against employees who compare salaries.

“Restoring opportunity for all has to be our priority, making sure the economy rewards hard work for every single American. Because when women succeed, America succeeds,” Obama said in a speech to mark the signing of the order. 

“We are going to work to make sure that our daughters have the same chance to pursue their dreams as our sons,” he added, urging businesses and the government to do more to hire women and achieve gender equality in a bid to lift families out of poverty and allocate more resources to child care, college tuition and retirement savings.

“We don’t have second-class citizens in this country,” Obama said.

Tuesday’s signing coincides with National Equal Pay Day, serving as a reminder that more than 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was made law, women still earn less then men. On average, women earn only about 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. African-American women and Latinas take home even less, just 64 cents and 54 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by white men, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). Obama called the numbers “embarrassing,” and “wrong.”

“It is good to move the ball forward on improving our equal pay policies,” Fatima Graves, NWLC vice president for education and employment, told Al Jazeera. “It’s important because right now workers are left in the dark about wage disparity information.”

“Penalizing pay secrecy is an important step that sends a strong message,” she said. But, Graves added, Obama’s order, which affects only federal contractors and does nothing to protect female employees in the private sector, “doesn’t complete the job.”

“What we really need is for Congress to pass the Fair Paycheck Act which would get at all workers,” she said.

A Senate vote on that act, slated for Tuesday, would extend the order’s requirements to most other employers. However, the bill has already failed to pass twice, despite evidence that pay transparency can reduce the gender wage gap. In the federal government, for example, where pay rates are publicly available, the gender wage gap is much smaller than in the private sector, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The Fair Paycheck Act would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the less comprehensive Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 — the first measure Obama signed into law as president.

The Ledbetter Act, named after a nearly retired product supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama who took her case of unequal pay to the Supreme Court in 1998, made it easier for women to sue employers for discriminatory wage practices, introducing a 180-day window after each paycheck during which women may challenge employers.

Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), told Al Jazeera that Obama’s order will protect whistleblowers from retaliation for challenging “‘Mad Men’–era policies.”

“It was an anonymous note in [Ledbetter’s] mailbox at work, to let her know that she was paid unfairly. We still don’t know who that person is, and up until [today], this person could be fired for telling her,” she said, and wondered whether Ledbetter’s secret informant would finally dare to step forward.

Motherhood, minimum wage

Still, six years after Obama signed the Ledbetter Act into law, much remains to be done, pay-parity advocates say.

The wage disparity between male and female employees begins soon after entering the world of work. One year after graduation, women earn 7 percent less than men. Differences in hours, occupation, sector, college major and other factors do not fully account for the difference in pay, according to a report by the AAUW. About one-third of the pay gap remains unexplained, and the researchers ascribed that differential to gender discrimination.

College debt disproportionately affects women because of their lower incomes. They face an additional hurdle if they  ask for more money — something many managers see as unseemly for women.

“We have special names that we call an aggressive woman,” said Maatz. “And it can backfire. It’s an important issue, but negotiation needs to be researched and done carefully. It doesn’t solve the problem. You can’t negotiate your way around discrimination.”

The wage gap increases when women opt to have children. Factors such as pregnancy leave and part-time positions adversely affect women’s paychecks, which amount to about 90 percent of what men make until women reach age 35. After that, median earnings for women drop to 75 to 80 percent of what men are paid, according to the AAUW.

A record 40 percent of all households with children under 18 include mothers who are the sole or primary source of income for the family. Single mothers, with a median annual income of $23,000, make up the majority of this group. But managers have not caught up with this reality. “Women are still told that the reason why they’re paid less is [that a male colleague] had a family and the men are breadwinners. It’s amazing how these outdated stereotypes are still around,” Maatz said.

In an economy that increasingly relies on temporary labor and contracted workers, raising the minimum wage would automatically lift some women out of poverty, equal-pay advocates say.

“There’s no question that some of the pay gap is due to the fact that women in the same job are being paid less. But some of it is due to the fact that women are concentrated in low-paid jobs,” Graves said, adding that women comprise two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country. Walmart, the country’s largest employer of women, has faced repeated accusations of discrimination against female workers.

“I really view [the act] as a measure of women’s broader economic security,” Graves said. “This gets the ball rolling at getting more information and deterrence in the workplace.” 

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