The Reid Report   |  April 08, 2014

Obama on pay gap: 'It's not a myth, it's math'

Cecilia Munoz, Elizabeth Plank and Sabrina Schaeffer discuss Pres. Obama’s speech on the wage gap and his executive orders that aim for wage transparency.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> hi, everyone. i'm joy reid . this is the reid report, and right now a major three-day summit is underway in austin, texas, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 civil rights act . just how far have we come in 50 years? we'll have more on a simmering battle over civil rights , race, and president obama that suggests maybe we haven't come as far as we think. but, first, the president is signing off on another year of action agenda item -- equal pay for equal work . the white house wants to close the pay gap for women who make 77 cents to every dollar earned by a man doing the same job. according to the national woman's law center , the gap widens to 64 cents for african-american women and to 54 cents for hispanic women .

>> first i'm going to sign an executive order to create more pay transparency by prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay with each other. secondly, i'm signing a presidential memorandum directing the department of labor and our outstanding secretary of labor tom perez to require federal contractors to provide data about their employee compensation .

>> now, the woman you see standing next to the president there is lily ledbetter , and she's the woman who worked at goodyear tire for 19 years making 40% less than her male co-workers until one of them wrote her an anonymous note exposing her pay gap . the actions build on the fair pay act that bears her name. she spoke to my colleague about today's actions.

>> if this had been a law back in my day, i wouldn't be here because i would be at home drawing the proper retirement that i had legally earned through my working career.

>> today republicans are firing back calling equal pay and the president's actions a political ploy.

>> so on this equal payday, i would urge us to stop politicizing women and let's start focussing on those policies that are actually going to help women and everyone in this country have a better life .

>> now, in all fairness, this is a medicine term election year, and the president is and has been working hard to rally his base. our nbc first reid team points out the reasons why firing up the female base is key. women have made the difference between democrats winning and losing elections. most recent xavrms, president obama in 2012 and virginia governor terry mcauliffe this past november. by the same token, republicans won the house in 2010 with the help of suburban women voters, as did virginia governor bob mcdonald back in 2009 . seems like women are not such a secret weapon after all. and the truth is if democrats have any hope of keeping control of the senate, women need to show up at the polls. meanwhile, the white house itself is under fire responding to accusations of unequal pay inside the administration itself. joining me now is white house domestic policy director cecilia, she's also the former vice president for policy at the national council of lorasa. i want to start with you on that last point, and thank you for being here, about the white house itself. is there a pay gap inside the white house for women ?

>> so the white house is doing better than the private sector , but there's really two pieces to the equal pay question, and the first of them, which is the thing the president addressed today, is transparency. making sure that people know what everybody is making so that you can address questions of equal pay . we have pay transparency here at the white house . that information is public information, and we have equal pay for equal work in the sense that people with the same jobs and the same titles make the same exact amount of money. that's the first piece. the second piece -- the second policy challenge with respect to equal pay is making sure women are in the higher paying occupations so we have a higher concentration of women , for example, in the lower paid entry level jobs here at the white house . we're trying to make sure that girls and women are trained in science and technology , engineering occupations that get higher wages. making sure our training agenda is focused on making sure that women have access to higher paying jobs, and he those are the jobs that we're seeking and choose and that we're trained and ready for. there are two pieces to the equal pay agenda, but the first one, the transparency issue, is what the president addressed head on today with respect to federal contractors. he signed an executive order basically saying they can't retaliate against people who share their pay information and that way we can know whether or not there is a disparity.

>> so getting, as you have just said, banning federal contractors from retaliating against employees, their employees, who discuss their pay and also instruct the labor secretary to require those federal contractors to actually make public the data about their payments in the same way that the federal government agencies use. okay. what will that do to close the gender gap ? is there a ripple effect expected in the private sector ? how has this helped women outside the beltway?

>> well, so, for example, if you work for federal contractor as lily ledbetter did, you cannot get penalized from the employer if you share information as her co-worker did. that co-worker did it anonymously. that stops for federal contractors as a result of the actions today. also as a result of the second action, the department of labor is putting forward a regulation which basically says contractors have to disclose salary band information. if you are an employer that wants to do the right thing, you can look at that data and say, oh, here is where the right salary range is. here's a way that i can make sure i'm praying folks properly and i'm want creating disparties. data actually helps illustrate where there's a problem. for those that want to do the right thing, they have to make good judgments and make sure they are want creating disparties. we know that diversity in the work forces helps make for a higher quality product. thank you very much.

>> thank you.

>> all right. i want to bring in elizabeth plank, executive social editor tore for policy and sabrina shafer, executive director of the independent women 's forum. okay. let's get into this question of equal pay . i want to show a graphic. do love the graphs. this is sort of what women could buy essentially if they were paid not at the 77 cents on the dollar, but full pay for women versus men. $431,000 estimated lost to the gender pay gap over the course of the average woman's working life with which she could buy a house, college tuition for two kids, $21,900 in gallons of gas and feed a family for 6.4 years. are those kind of statistics really are what is going to be used to sell the wider public outside the federal contracting world on equal pay .

>> yeah. i think, you know, sunday "mad men" the last season is approaching, but when we look at the workplace, we still live in the "mad men" era, and those are the kinds of figures that are really going to speak to women . we've been hearing 77 cents, 77 cents over and over again, and, of course aring that's a compelling number, but when you add those pennies and those pennies add up to dollars, that's really what is going to be compelling information for women when they show up at the ballot box to remember, you know, who is backing them up, who is going to make sure that they have that money back.

>> right. sabrina , what would you say to people as i asked cecilia saying, listen, if you do this, if you sort of force the private secretary of stator to equalize pay for men and women , all you're going to do is discourage employers from hiring women .

>> well, i agree. look, i mean, i think they have to back up. the reality is this whole conversation is based off of a faulty statistic. the 77 cents statistic. as the white house conceded yesterday is grossly misleading. if you control for any number of factors that are very important. you're a college major , your experience, your time spent out of the work force , your time spent in the office each day. this wage gap all but disappears. i think it's really important that we realize that it's far, far smaller, maybe 4 cents, 5 cents, 6 cents, and there are lots of different reasons that that may be the case. maybe discrimination is part of the explanation, but maybe it's because women aren'ting inning as frequently as they should be. the reality is that the law that is they're trying to put out there aren't going to create equal pay . they're going to tie things up in court, and we have laws on the books already to protect women and men from gender discrimination .

>> but, sabrina , just to push back on this a little bit, if you are saying that you're essentially saying that because this pay gap has persisted over generations, are you just saying that women are bad negotiators and pick bad majors and that that is the entirety of the case while this real world average exists? you're saying it's because women pick bad majors? i don't understand your argument in full.

>> i think there are bad employers out there, but you can't legislate away all bad behavior, but i think the larnler factor is that, look, i was a history major, and i knew men who are pet let me engineers. the reality is i don't have any interest in being a petroleum engineer , and a lot of women , even if you look at women at m. i.t., which i did, and you look at the majors that they go into, even at the top science university, more women are going into subjects like biology, like architecture, social sciences , while the men are going into the computer sciences and the engineering. the fact is men and women are different. these aren't bad differences, but they are different, and i think that sometimes it's okay instead of trying to force us to do things that we don't want just say, all right, but if women want to be -- go into the hard sciences , great, but if not, this is not discrimination.

>> so, elizabeth , that sounds like the argument that was made in the " wall street journal ". women are picking those jobs that just pay less. they're choosing to be, you know, a history major and complaining because a biology man makes more. is that compelling to you?

>> i'm going to have to agree with sabrina . i think the 77 cent figure is misleased because that is the figure for white women . when you look at black women , they make 64 cents. when you look at latinas, they make 54 cents. that's almost half of what the white women --

>> is it down to choices? is the argument that it's down to poor choices?

>> the problem with the argument that sabrina is making, she's ignoring the huge market biases.

>> i'm not ignore it.

>> we're going to let you get in, sabrina , but let's let her finish her point.

>> if we say that women are choosing lower wages, we're saying -- it's as crazy as saying that women choose poverty or they choose the minimum wage over higher wages. two-third of minimum wage earners are women , and saying that is just a choice of women , that that is just a choice of black women is not only sexist, but it's racest.

>> how do you respond to the fact that in a position like lily ledbetter was in where she had the exact same job, she had made the exact same choice, she had the exact same job description as a man and was still being paid less, when those things happen in the workplace, how do you blame a woman's choices for that?

>> i don't. i don't. i say that that -- if something like that happens, then a woman or a man for that matter has the right to take their employer to court, and we have laws on the books. we have the equal pay act of 1963 . we have the civil rights act of 1964 . we have the lily ledbetter fair pay act, which extends that time that a woman or man could sue. we have all sorts of law that is are currently on the books, but i would rather see more tools available to women so that they can better themselves. the reality is that women in their 20s and many urban centers are out earning men. women 35 and older without children are also out earning men. we're talking about a very narrow subset of under-educated thanks to all of the democratic women who are standing up there today who will not support any kind of educational freedom bill. we have under indicated, lower income women who are unmarried. this is an easy audience to appeal to more government, but the reality is this is purely political.

>> your witness, elizabeth . is it just under educated women ? is it just basically low information women who just don't know any better and they ought to just get out there and get a lawyer and sue?

>> if you look at the data, actually the most educated people in our country are women right now. women are earning far more degrees than men are.

>> i agree.

>> the problem is that's not actually translating into more senior positions. there is a glass ceiling , and it's making it very hard for women to have access to those leadership positions, and there's a sticky floor where women are stuck in these low earning positions and they can't get out of them.

>> really quickly, sabrina , how much do you think it costs to file a lawsuit against a big employer if you're an individual?

>> well, it's not going to cost a lot if you have a class action lawsuit which women are going to be automatically filed, and when there's no caps on damages, it's going to be very easy for women and it's going to be great for trial lawyers.

>> so you do then agree that we should have laws on the books that allow women to sue because the only way can you file a class action lawsuit is if there is something in the law for you to sue over, soee with having equal pay laws because that's the only way someone could possibly file a suit.

>> yeah. no, i agree. if you genuinely are descriminated against, there are laws on the books that allow to you sue, and you should do that. i don't think that the paycheck fairness act that's being voted on this week is going to actually close that very small pay gap . it's going to make suing easier.

>> if there's nothing in the law that said that your paychecks have to be the same, what is your legal action ?

>> we already have that. we have that. my point is --

>> then why do we have a pay gap ?

>> because i think that there's a combination. are there bad employers? yes. do women make different choices than men? yes. do they maybe not negotiate as much or not take a seat at the table, cheryl sandberg said? yes. are these things we can change on the margin? absolutely. should we? of course, we should. i want to see women excel. they can and they are, but the reality is that i don't think we need more legislation to do that.

>> okay. last word to you, elizabeth . can this all just be solved by women getting more educated about filing class action lawsuits?

>> no. i think it will help with transparency, which is what president obama is trying to do. it's very hard to know that your male co-workers are being paid more than you if you actually don't have that information, and we've all had or tried to have conversations about salary with our co-workers. we know how awkward those can be, so i imagine when a female employee wants to go to their bosses and have those conversations, i should know that i would not feel very comfortable doing that, and information will absolutely empower those female employees to do that.

>> an important debate, and i want to thank elizabeth and sabrina . thanks to both of you for being here.