The first skirmish in the renewed battle for gender wage equality seemed to be won by Republicans. The White House was forced to defend itself against its use of questionable data while a gaggle of conservatives—armed with equally misleading statistics and fingers pointed—pounced on the president. But a closer look at the data proves President Obama is closing his inherited White House wage gap, and experts say his policies might be able to influence a national disparity that hasn’t budged in a decade.
Men and women make up about an equal share of Obama’s White House staff. According to the 2013 White House staff salary report, excluding part-time workers and federal workers on loan from other departments, women in the White House earned a median annual income of about $62,000, compared to $70,000 for men. These women earned 88 cents for every dollar a man earned—creating an 11.5 percent wage gap.
“That’s good,” said Francine Blau, a professor of economics at Cornell University and author of several studies on gender and wages. “It’s better than the economy as a whole.”
What’s more, a glance at the same reports going back to 2001 shows the Obama administration has closed his staff wage gap at a far faster rate than the national level, which narrowed considerably in the 1980s but has barely moved in the last 10 years. It also shows a sharp trend in the White House toward gender pay equity in the George W. Bush years—a time characterized by a general decrease in the gap, punctuated with setbacks. Though progress was made on median wages from 2004 to 2007, President Bush left office with an 18 percent gender wage gap.
But the salaries of staffers aren’t set by the presidents; pay is determined by the Office of Management and Administration (PDF) and set to a schedule. A better indicator of progress, then, would be to look at the number and pay of women hired for senior-level positions.
In 2013, 10 of 22 top-salaried “assistant to the president” spots, paying $172,200 a year, were filled by women—two more than in 2009 and more than triple the number of Bush’s final year in office.
The number of women making large salaries overall rose, too. Though the same number of staffers (130) earned more than $100,000 in 2013 as in 2008, Obama’s White House placed a larger share of women, a record 47 percent, in these lucrative positions than Bush did (32 percent).
The cause is unclear. Press secretary Jay Carney says the White House has “aggressively addressed this challenge,” but pressure from complaints that the White House was a “boys’ club” could have played a part. Demographics also weigh in favor of wage parity: In a 2013 report on women’s earnings (PDF), the Bureau of Labor Statistics said a younger, more educated work force shrinks the earnings gap to about 10 percent.
It appears Obama’s problem isn’t his record on gender pay equality but his fondness for a certain statistic. “The average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns…and in 2014, that’s an embarrassment. It is wrong,” he said April 8 after signing an executive order ensuring that employees won’t be punished for talking about their pay.
In 2014 alone, Obama has given at least six policy speeches that include that line. And conservatives have jumped on him for it—arguing rightly that the figure doesn’t take into account occupational segregation, education, and lifestyle choices that many women make, such as working fewer hours or interrupting careers to take care of children. A number of studies that adjust for these extras narrow the gap but still find a discrepancy of between 5 and 12 percent, or between 88 and 95 cents for every dollar a man earns.
“[Seventy-seven percent] is an important statistic, though it doesn’t tell us specifically about discrimination,” said Blau, whose own research shows an unexplained gap of 9 percent. “Seventy-seven percent says, ‘Look, this is the overall difference in pay between men and women and let’s talk about the reasons and how they might be addressed.”
“A lot of it isn’t really an equal pay for work issue,” Blau said. But she said the data point does bring up other important issues that the type of actions Obama has taken thus far might be able to address.
“Why are women segregated and why do they continue to be?” she said. “Or women who have difficulty being hired or face a chilly environment and don’t stay. Representation in STEM fields is another important issue. These are all areas of concern, and anti-discrimination legislation has something to contribute.”
Still, conservatives argue that Obama is pandering to women voters by using an intentionally deceptive statistic.
Analyzing the yearly White House staff report, Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute noted the 12 percent wage gap between men and women staffers and cheekily suggested the creation of a “White House Equal Pay Day” to promote wage equality at the federal level. Though Perry acknowledged in the comments, “Yes, it’s satire,” Republicans piled on.
They all seemed to miss Obama’s success at narrowing the White House’s wage gap, but it’s unlikely to matter at this point. The attention surrounding White House equal pay is probably over, at least until next year’s salaries are released. But if meaningful legislation is a priority, the Obama administration might want keep the focus on the issue.
As Jay Carney acknowledged in last week’s press briefing, “That the problem exists in a lot of places only reinforces the need to fix it.”