WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama used his executive power and a hot-button issue to try to stoke support from a key election-year constituency on Tuesday, as he issued two directives aimed at ensuring federal contractors pay women as much as men for equal work.
Surrounding himself with female supporters at the White House, Obama signed an executive order prohibiting contractors from retaliating against employees who talk about how much money they make. Advocates say secrecy about salaries is a major contributor to the gap in average pay between male and female workers in the United States, which the White House says leaves women making 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.
The president also ordered contractors to report data to the government showing the compensation they provide their employees by sex and race.
Democrats have long tried and failed to pass legislation imposing similar restrictions and rules on most employers, and they are picking up the effort again this week in a push tied to Equal Pay Day. The proposed Paycheck Fairness Act is expected to get its third vote in the Senate today, although it is not expected to overcome Republican opposition.
Still, Democrats see the legislation as an effective tool to rally women, particularly middle- and low-income working women, whose votes they’ll need to retain a majority in the Senate in November. Democrats typically win a majority of female voters in general elections, but are trying to avoid a repeat of the 2010 midterm “shellacking” that saw many of those voters either stay home or shift parties.
As he signed the executive actions Tuesday, Obama returned to the economic-fairness message he honed when he won over female voters in his own re-election two years ago.
“I don’t know why you would resist the idea that women should be paid the same as men, and then deny that that’s not always happening out there,” the president said. “If Republicans in Congress want to prove me wrong, if they want to show that they in fact do care about women being paid the same as men, then show me. They can start tomorrow. They can join us in this, the 21st century.”
Republicans noted that gender discrimination in the workplace is already illegal, and they argue that putting additional rules on employers will limit women’s choices in the workplace and burden employers. They turned to female lawmakers to make the case on Tuesday.
“Let’s focus on those policies that are actually going to move forward on a jobs plan that will create a higher paycheck, more opportunities and that opportunity for a better life, which we all want,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. “Two out of three small businesses right now are being started by women. So women understand the direct impact of the policies and the impact that they have on them.”