Obama's Executive Orders Take On Unequal Pay For Women

President Obama signs two executive orders Tuesday morning, designed to encourage federal contractors to pay men and women equally. The move could bring more Democratic-leaning women to the polls.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today is Equal Pay Day, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The government calculates the average pay of men and women.

GREENE: A woman would've had to work all last year, then all the way until today in order to match what the average man made just last year.

INSKEEP: She needed more than 15 months to match what the man made in 12.

GREENE: We're also nearing tax day. And MORNING EDITION is reporting on women and money. In a moment, challenges women face when negotiating their salary.

INSKEEP: We start with some news. Today, President Obama is pressing federal contractors to pay men and women equally. Democrats are making a coordinated push on this issue. They hope to draw more women to vote for Democrats in November.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama will be joined at today's signing ceremony by Lilly Ledbetter, the Alabama woman who became a symbol of unequal pay. Ledbetter challenged the Goodyear Company for paying her less than her male colleagues, and inspired the first bill that Obama signed into law five years ago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody.

HORSLEY: The Ledbetter law gives women who are underpaid more time to sue. But five years after its passage, the White House says the average woman is still paid just 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Some of that can be chalked up to time away from work raising children or women's concentration in low-wage industries.

But Jocelyn Frye of the left-leaning Center for American Progress says factors such as those explain only about 60 percent of the difference in men and women's pay.

JOCELYN FRYE: It explains some of the gap. But there often is some unexplained remaining gap that many people attribute to discrimination.

HORSLEY: Oftentimes, women like Lilly Ledbetter work for years not even knowing they're being paid less. Some companies prohibit workers from talking about their wages. In other workplaces, those rules are unwritten. Frye notes that one of Obama's executive orders today is designed to bring the pay gap out of the shadows by guaranteeing people who work for federal contractors have the chance to discuss wages with their colleagues.

FRYE: It would encourage employers to be more transparent so that there's no confusion. This is how we pay people. This is what we're doing. And it's in their best interest to make sure that people have a clear understanding of their rules and how they operate.

HORSLEY: Contractors will also have to provide summary data about their pay scales to the Labor Department, including a breakdown by race and gender. Because the president is acting on his own, the order applies only to companies doing business with the federal government. But this week, the Democratic Senate considers a bill that would extend similar protections throughout the economy.

That bill is unlikely to become law, but it does have the potential to put Republicans on the spot. No one wants to be in the position of defending unequal pay. Instead, GOP critics of the law warn of government interference in the free market, and the prospect of runaway lawsuits.

Obama and his fellow Democrats argue pay equity should be a concern for all Americans, but their political message is aimed squarely at working women, a key constituency that contributed heavily to the president's re-election in 2012.

Although women's turnout advantage tends to be smaller in non-presidential years, the voting booth is one area where women command a premium.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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