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Money and politics don't always make for polite conversation but President Obama tried to tackle both at the White House today. The president signed a pair of executive orders aimed at encouraging conversation about men and women's pay scales. Democrats hope that conversation will yield political gains this year. But the president's action has also raised questions about how the administration pays its own people. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Standing before a crowd of women in the White House East Room today, President Obama noted the average woman working full-time in America makes just 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. In 2014, he said that's an embarrassment.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Equal pay is not just an economic issue for millions of Americans and their families. It's also about whether we're willing to build an economy that works for everybody.
HORSLEY: Obama was joined at the event by Lily Ledbetter, who became a national symbol of unequal pay. She spent years working for a Goodyear plant, all the time making less than her male colleagues.
LILY LEDBETTER: I didn't know I was being paid unfairly and I had no way to find out.
HORSLEY: Goodyear, like many companies, barred its workers from talking about how much they made. Today, the president signed an executive order preventing such rules at federal contractors and he directed the Labor Department to gather summary data about contractors' pay scales. In an effort to shine a spotlight on pay disparity, though, the White House itself got caught in the glare. Spokesman Jay Carney went on the defensive when reporters asked why women working at the White House make less on average than their male colleagues.
JAY CARNEY: Men and women in equivalent roles here earn equivalent salaries. We have two deputy chiefs of staff, one man and one woman, and they earn and make the same salary. We have 16 department heads. Over half of them are women. All of them make the same salary as their male counterparts.
HORSLEY: Carney suggested disparity in White House pay results from a concentration of women in lower-paid jobs. Cornell economist Francine Blau says the same kind of occupational difference also explains about half the national pay gap between men and women.
FRANCINE BLAU: Women are heavily concentrated in health and education, for example. Men are more likely to be in manufacturing, construction. So those types of differences do affect pay rates.
HORSLEY: Obama acknowledged the need to help more women into high-paying occupations such as engineering and computer science. Blau, who studies the pay gap with her colleague Lawrence Kahn, says another factor is workplace experience.
BLAU: Traditionally, they - a woman might have worked for a while and then she might have dropped out of the labor force when she had children. She might have returned later. And gender differences and experience have traditionally been an extremely important factor in explaining the gender pay gap.
HORSLEY: Blau says time spent off the job still explains about 10 percent of the gap, even as more women with children stay in the workplace. But, Blau adds, a big part of the gap remains a mystery.
BLAU: Even when you take into account all the factors that we can measure, at least, 40 percent of the gap was unexplained.
HORSLEY: While over gender discrimination has declined over the years, Blau says women may still be penalized in the workplace by subtle, even unconscious factors. With an eye towards mobilizing women before the midterm elections, the Democratic-led Senate will vote tomorrow on a bill to give women stronger remedies against pay discrimination. Republicans like Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers denounced the move as a political ploy.
On this equal payday, I would urge us to stop politicizing women. And let's start focusing on those policies that are actually going to help women and everyone in this country have a better life.
But Obama and his fellow Democrats seem determined to keep people talking about the pay gap. Pay secrecy fosters discrimination, the president said. He wants pay scales everywhere to be as public as those inside the White House. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
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