President Obama on Tuesday rolled out the latest in a series of administrative actions designed to promote pay equality for women, pushing back forcefully at critics who have cast doubt on figures cited by the White House.
Obama repeated the oft-cited statistics suggesting women are paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man at the same job.
Following his remarks, Obama signed an executive order prohibiting companies that do business with the White House from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay.
“Pay secrecy fosters discrimination, and we should not tolerate it,” Obama said.
The president also issued a Presidential Memorandum directing Labor Secretary Tom Perez to draft new regulations requiring contractors to report summary pay information — including data on race and sex — to the agency.
The data would be submitted in aggregate, without individual or personal information, “so pay discrimination can be spotted more easily,“ Obama said.
In many cases, employers mistakenly believe they are paying their workers equally, until their wage practices are aggregated and broken down, Obama said.
“Sometimes, when the data is laid out, it paints a different picture,” the president explained.
The measures are components of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is slated for a vote in the Senate Wednesday, but has failed to gain traction in the GOP-controlled House.
Republicans maintain they support equal pay, but accuse the White House of politicizing the issue, with some seizing on a report showing that men working at the White House under Obama earn more than their female colleagues.
Others contest the 77-cent figure, saying it greatly exaggerates the wage gap by ignoring crucial variables, including the number of hours worked, education and experience.
“The wage gap is real, but the White House does itself a disservice — and embarrasses itself in the process — by grasping for misleading statistics that don’t tell the whole story,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told The New York Times.
Obama bristled at criticism of his income equality push, which also included an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for federal contractors.
As with that case, the president’s power to enact changes involving wages is limited, hence the limited focus on federal contractors. Passage of the Paycheck Fairness act would be required to extend the prohibition to all workers.
He called upon congressional Republicans to support the legislation.
“I don’t know why you would resist the idea that women should be paid as much as men,” he said. “They can join us on this, the 21ist century, and vote yes on the Paycheck Fairness Act.”
Later at the White House, press secretary Jay Carney insisted that the administration was eager to engage in a debate over equal pay statistics.
"I just want to thank everybody for allowing us to have a sustained debate about this issue, because I think every day that we talk about it, and every day that the American people see that this president and his allies in Congress are fighting for women, is a good day," Carney said.
But as reporters asked Carney repeatedly to defend the White House's use of median wage statistics, Carney became testy.
The press secretary told Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason he would "expect something a little more precise" from the financial news service after the reporter said outside economists disagreed with the 77 cent number.
"The 77 cents figure, which is widely used figure, is based on census data, as I understand it," Carney said. "I don't think, if there's ways to slice this data that alters it by a few cents here or there, there's any dispute over the fact that that gap continues to exist."
The White House spokesman also defended the pay disparity among presidential staffers.
"Because of the transparency that exists at the White House, where everyone in America can find out what everyone here earns, everyone in America knows that everybody's paid equally for the same job," Carney said.
Carney did concede that there were "a variety of factors that play into the gap" but accused Republicans of exploiting that to argue there was no problem with gender discrimination.
"What they're not acknowledging is that there is a problem that they have the power to address, but they refuse to address it, and they refuse to address it through raising the minimum wage, and they refuse to address it by putting in place protections for women when it comes to paycheck fairness," he said. "That's a problem, and it's a shame."
This story was updated at 2:15 p.m.