WASHINGTON — President Obama signed two executive measures on Tuesday intended to help close longstanding pay disparities between men and women as Democrats seek to capitalize on their gender-gap advantage at the ballot box in a midterm election year.
Obama, standing in front of a platform of women in the East Room of the White House, said his actions will make it easier for women to learn whether they had been cheated by employers. He called on Congress to pass legislation that would take more significant steps.
“America deserves equal pay for equal work,” he said.
Noting that it was “Equal Pay Day,” he said a woman who worked in 2013 had to work this far into 2014 to catch up to what a man earned by the end of last year.
“That’s not fair,” Obama said. “That’s like adding another 6 miles to a marathon.” He added: “America should be a level playing field, a fair race for everybody.”
The president, as he has in the past, reiterated that it was “an embarrassment” that women on average earn 77 cents for every dollar men make. But he made no mention of a recent study that found that women in his own White House make 88 cents for every dollar men do. Aides have said that women earn the same salary as men of the same rank but that there are more women in lower-paying jobs — an explanation similar to that often given by private-sector employers.
Some critics have said both of those statistics are misleading because they are averages of all men and women in all jobs, rather than comparisons of men and women in equivalent jobs with equivalent experience. Once such factors are taken into account, they say, the gap is smaller.
“We all support equal pay for equal work and know there’s a problem that must be addressed,” said Kirsten Kukowski, national press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “But many are questioning the Democrats’ motives as they continue their dishonesty about the issue and their own gender gap.”
The Senate is set to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act on Wednesday, and a memo distributed by the Republican National Committee and two other party committees ahead of the vote noted that it was already illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender. It said Democrats “always seem to wait for an election year to push another empty promise.”
The committees released statistics showing pay gaps in the office staffs of several Democrats up for reelection this year, including Senators Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark R. Warner of Virginia, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Obama responded to the critics.
“Some commentators are out there saying that the pay gap doesn’t even exist,” he said. “They say it’s a myth. But it’s not a myth. It’s math.”
The president lambasted Republicans for opposing “any efforts to even the playing field for working families.” He added: “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. If Republicans in Congress want to prove me wrong, if they want to show that in fact they do care about women being paid the same as men, then show me. They can start tomorrow.”
Neither of the actions Obama took Tuesday will affect the broad US workforce. The executive order he signed bars federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries and an executive memorandum he issued instructs the Labor Department to collect statistics on pay for men and women from such contractors.
But the White House staged a ceremony with the sort of profile usually reserved for a major bill signing. Aides arranged for Obama to be introduced by Lilly M. Ledbetter, who has become a symbol of the pay gap issue since the Supreme Court ruled that her discrimination case had been filed after the expiration of a statute of limitations. Congress passed a measure named for her changing the deadlines for filing such suits and Obama made it the first bill he signed after taking office.
Ledbetter said the executive order signed by Obama would have made a difference in her case. “I didn’t know I was being paid unfairly, and I had no way to find out,” she said. “I was told in no uncertain terms that Goodyear, then and still a government contractor, fired employees who shared their salary information. It was against company policy.”
Obama said Ledbetter’s case belied the explanations often given for pay differentials.
“You’ll hear all sorts of excuses: ‘Oh, well they’re childbearing and they’re choosing to do this and they’re this and they’re that and they’re the other,’ ” he said.
“She was doing the same job, probably doing better. Same job. Working just as hard, probably putting in more hours,” Obama said. “But she was getting systematically paid less.”