My latest for HuffPost: a deep dive into gender pay equity at the White House over 3 administrations—featuring number crunching.
The Huffington Post - July 8, 2014
WASHINGTON — Wage and hiring disparities between men and women appear to be bipartisan problems that aren’t really improving.
The gender pay gap among White House staffers has changed very little through the past three presidential administrations, even though Democrats tend to prioritize the issue more than Republicans. This is true even at the senior staff level where there has been only a slight improvement since the last Republican-controlled White House.
Last Tuesday, the White House released its annual list of staff salaries, which it has been required to do every year since 1995.
The numbers reveal a gender pay gap, but not because men were paid more than women for the same jobs performed. Rather, it was because men occupied upper-level (higher-paying) positions more often than women and, according to the Obama administration, because the administration was trying to bring in more women at the junior level — in lesser-paying jobs — to help them move up eventually.
At Wednesday’s White House press briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest admitted that “the White House has some improvement to make” on the gender equity front.
"I wouldn’t hold up the White House as the perfect example here," he said.
The implication left by the briefing was that while the president has made progress on the pay equality front, he has more work to do. Left unanswered was how much progress the president has actually made.
The answer, according to a review of White House salary data, is not that much. In prior administrations, the gap between the number of women and men in senior-level positions was similar to what it is today.
The Huffington Post examined the top 25 percent of earners in each administration to see how men and women fared at the top of the White House pyramid.
For 2014, the top 25 percent of earners within the White House have been compensated above $110,500 annually. That group includes 70 men and 38 women, or 65 percent who are men and 35 percent who are women.
The gender pay gap at the upper level was actually narrower at the start of the Obama administration in 2009. Back then, the upper quartile salary was $113,000 a year. Of the employees making that or above, 67 were men and 50 were women, or 57 percent and 43 percent, respectively.
This was only a slight improvement from 1993, when The Washington Post obtained a list of White House salaries and published them. In President Bill Clinton’s first year in office, 40 men and 25 women, or 62 percent and 38 percent, respectively, earned over the upper quartile salary of $85,000.
Due to a lack of available data in the intervening years, it’s difficult to tell if anything changed during Clinton’s two terms in office. The gap initially spiked during the first years of the Bush administration. In 2001, 71 percent of the top 25 percent of earners in the White House were men and only 29 percent were women (70 men vs. 28 women). In 2003, 72 percent were men and 28 percent were women. By the end of Bush’s first term, however, the gap had shrunk to 65 men and 37 women earning in the top 25 percent — percentages that are virtually identical to today’s White House.
The gap shrunk more in 2005, when the upper quarter was 60 percent men and 40 percent women. But in the last part of Bush’s second term, the gap widened again, from 65 percent men and 35 percent women in 2006, to 72 percent men and 28 percent women in 2007, and 73 percent men and 27 percent women in 2008.
Overall, Obama has done better at elevating women to senior-level positions. He began his presidency with 57 percent men and 43 percent women. The gap was at its narrowest in 2010 with 55 percent men and 45 percent women. But over the past few years, the gap has widened again: In 2011, it was 59 percent men and 41 percent women; in 2012, it was 62 percent men and 38 percent women.
When reached for comment, a White House official directed The Huffington Post to Earnest’s comments and noted that more than half of its departments are directed by women. Also, in April, Obama took executive action to enforce equal pay for federal contractors.
Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, acknowledged the problem on MSNBC’s “All In” with Chris Hayes in April. But she also said that part of the pay gap problem at the White House was because “we’re over-represented among the entry-level positions.” In other words: A large number of lower-paid female employees has been bringing down the overall average. Munoz explained that one of the White House’s goals is “to make sure that people move up the chain, that women are moving up and that they’re getting qualified to move up the ladder and to earn higher salaries.”
However, looking at the data, it appears the current administration isn’t hiring more women in lower-level positions compared with its predecessors. In 2006, the second year of Bush’s second term, 59 percent of staffers earning below the median salary in the White House were women. This year, at the same point in Obama’s presidency, 55 percent were women.
The numbers released last week caused Obama’s critics to pounce, noting that he has been urging businesses to reduce gender pay disparity throughout his time in office and chastising lawmakers to pass legislation that would facilitate this. The first piece of legislation the president signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which expands the amount of time someone can sue an employer for pay discrimination on the basis of gender, race, nationality, age, disability or religion. And in June, the issue of pay disparity came up at the White House Summit on Working Families; one of the proposals announced at the summit would hold employers more accountable for providing equal pay. Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked one effort to impose this, the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, herself one of the highest-paid staffers at the White House, told HuffPost Live that the wage disparity between men and women is “ridiculous.”