Senate Votes Down Gender Pay Equity Bill; White House Defends Use of Questionable Statistic

The U.S. Senate failed to move forward on a gender pay discrimination bill Wednesday as the White House continues to defend its use of a questionable statistic on the gender wage gap.

With all Republicans voting "no," the Paycheck Fairness Act did not get the 60 votes needed to end debate and move the bill to a vote. The bill would have allowed employees to share their salary information with each other and bring civil actions against their employer for gender discrimination.

Republicans objected that they were not allowed to offer any amendments to the bill, including an amendment offered by four female Republicans that would have included provisions against retaliating against workers who inquire about the salaries of their peers.

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Maine independent Sen. Angus King caucuses with the Democrats but joined the Republicans in opposing the bill. In a statement, he said the bill could "impose substantial burdens on businesses" and it does not address "the real causes that are driving the wage gap."

The vote was part of a coordinated effort with the White House to make gender pay differences an issue in the November elections.

"Today, the average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns … in 2014, that's an embarrassment. It is wrong," President Barack Obama said in a Tuesday speech.

Many experts point to problems, though, with the 77 cents figure. Glenn Kessler, the "fact checker" for The Washington Post, gave Obama "two Pinocchios" Wednesday for his use of the statistic. (This was higher, or less truthful, that the "one Pinocchio" Kessler gave Obama for using the same statistic during the 2012 election season.) Also in 2012, PolitiFact said Obama's claim was "mostly false."

Hanna Rosin explained why the statistic is wrong in an August 2013 article for Slate, a liberal publication, called "The Gender Wage Gap Lie."

The 77 percent figure, Rosin explains, comes from comparing the median earnings of all women working full-time with the median earnings of all men working full-time. When looking at it that way, men do make more than women, but the statistic itself cannot explain whether there is discrimination, or men are getting more money for doing the same work as women.

Citing work by economists, Rosin said there are many reasons that the median salaries are higher for men than women that do not include discrimination. Men work longer hours, are more likely to have union jobs, and choose professions that pay more, and women are more likely to have career advancement interruptions to care for children and women are poor salary negotiators, for instance.

To really know if there is gender discrimination, Rosin pointed out, one would need to look at whether women are actually paid differently for doing the same work as men.

Using the same method of calculation that the White House used to argue that discrimination leads to men receiving 23 cents per hour more than women, University of Michigan economist Mark J. Perry found that in the White House itself men get paid 12 cents more than women.

For two days in a row this week, reporters hounded White House Press Secretary Jay Carney about that fact. If comparing median salary gender differences in the labor market indicates discrimination against females, they asked, does comparing median salary gender differences in the White House indicate discrimination against females in the White House?

In his defense of the gender pay differences in the White House, Carney used the same reasoning used by those who say the 77 cent figure is wrong. As long as women are getting paid the same for the same work, Carney explained, there is no discrimination in the White House.

"And here at the White House equal pay legislation deems that there should be equal pay for equal work, and that's what we have – men and women in equivalent roles here earn equivalent salaries.

"For example, we have two deputy chiefs of staff, one man and one woman, and they earn the same salary. We have 16 department heads, over half of them are women, all of whom make the same salary as their male counterparts," he said Monday.

When Carney was again pressed with similar questions on Tuesday, White House Director of Communications Jennifer Palmieri suggested, via Twitter, that there was a problem with the fact that the reporters asking the questions are all male.

"Love all these guys, but note that 6 of 7 news [organizations] in front row sent men to ask @pressec [about] the problem of gender pay inequity," she tweeted.

In response, several reporters pointed out that the White House sent a man, Jay Carney, to answer those questions.

"In your line of [thought] Jennifer a woman should have taken the question for the White House not a man," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Salena Zito tweeted.

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