by Heather Wood Rudulph


In a move to make good on his promise to fix the wage gap, President Barack Obama signed two executive motions today aimed at mending pay-based gender discrimination — and urging businesses to be transparent in their wage practices.

Sitting alongside Lilly Ledbetter, the woman who inspired the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation he signed into law as president, Obama spoke of the need to urge Congress to pass legislation that will force employers to end pay inequality between the sexes.

“If they say there isn’t a pay gap out there, you tell them to look again, because there is,” the president said. “It’s time to get this done.”

He signed an executive order that requires federal contractors to disclose wage data broken down by sex and race. The Department of Labor will use these statistics to encourage employers to comply with equal pay laws.The second document was a presidential memorandum that prohibits employers from punishing employees who discuss their earnings with each other.

The goal of these motions is to help women discover violations of equal-pay laws and demand fair treatment, but they only apply to federal contractors, not the workforce as a whole. Advocates will be keeping a close eye on Congress as it debates the Paycheck Fairness Act later this week, marking its third time on the Hill. Only with the passage of this bill will the provisions in the president’s two executive motions apply to the general workforce.?

The president’s motions fall on “Equal Pay Day,” which signifies how many extra days women would need to work this year to earn what their male counterparts earned last year alone. On average, women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, while African-Americans make 65 cents and Hispanics, 55 cents. According to the National Women’s Law Center, these disparities have persisted for more than a decade.

But not all women are cheering today’s actions as a way to solve equal pay — or even take baby steps toward gender equality. The Independent Women’s Forum, a capitalism-focused nonprofit sponsored by prominent conservatives such as Lynne Cheney, calls Equal Pay Day a “fictitious holiday,” and claims requiring businesses to report their wage practices and allow employees to speak freely about their earnings will further marginalize women in the workforce.?

“In reaction to this type of government meddling, employers will have an incentive to move toward one-size-fits-all compensation packages and consolidating their workforce to minimize the costs and headaches associated with hiring,” IWF executive director Sabrina Schaeffer said in a press conference on Monday. “This will ultimately strip an employer of control over their hiring decisions. So much for encouraging workplace flexibility and employment opportunity; so much for really helping women.”?

Analysts predict that the Paycheck Fairness Act is unlikely to pass yet again, given the Republican majority, but its presence can put pressure on Congress to make equal pay an issue because women are now the voting majority. And equal-pay activists applaud the Obama's move as a necessary first step.

“Ensuring these workers have the freedom to talk about their salaries without fear [is] a kind of openness that can help close the gender pay gap," said American Association of University Women vice president Lisa Maatz. "The executive order also sends a clear message to companies awarded government contracts that they cannot discriminate with taxpayer money." ?

Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU senior legislative counsel, also praised the move. “This is a huge victory for the 1 in 5 American workers employed by federal contractors,” she said. “Congress still needs to do its part and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, but we’re one step closer to achieving pay equity thanks to this White House.”