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President Barack Obama didn’t say much about women in his State of the Union address, but one of his few references drew a jab from former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
In his speech, Obama said "this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work." He was referring to the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would allow workers to talk among themselves about how much they are being paid.
Fiorina, a California Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010, took the president to task the next morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
"Every woman across the nation agrees that equal pay for equal work is absolutely required," Fiorina said during a conversation with White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. "I also think it's just a fact that laws exist on the books today, and if a woman is being discriminated against because of her gender, she should use the full extent of that law. I am struck by the fact the president hasn't really led in this regard. He's not paying women equally by his own measures in his own White House."
"In the White House, women do earn equal pay for equal work," Jarrett said. "The bill that’s currently before Congress would make it easier for women to find out if they are being discriminated against."
From that exchange, what caught PunditFact's attention is that Obama isn't practicing what he preaches in the White House.
So what do the facts say?
At a baseline level, there is a gender pay gap in the White House. Each year, the president’s office publishes a list of all staff members, the jobs they hold and their pay. With a little commonsense and a bit of Googling (we now know that Brayden is an Irish boys name), we sorted the most recent list of 460 employees by gender.
We found that the average female staff member made $78,767 in 2013, while the average male made $85,602. The Washington Post did its own analysis and came up with slightly different numbers, but no matter how you cut it, a difference exists. In round figures, the average woman makes about 10 percent less than the average man. (One detail: Just about all the staffers are listed as employees, but about 6 percent are on loan as it were from other agencies. They are listed as detailees and their pay is not set by the White House. It does have some impact on the numbers. For the record, we included all workers in our analysis.)
So there is a pay gap.
But the context of the comments made by Obama at the State of the Union, and then by Fiorina, go beyond that a pay gap exists. The suggestion is that it exists out of some level of discrimination. Put another way, women are paid less than men for doing the same job.
We found no real evidence of that happening at the White House.
When we matched men and women by their job titles, not only did the gap disappear, the edge went to the women. This table shows how things break down for two higher echelon titles, "assistant to the president" and "senior policy adviser."
Assistant to the president
Senior policy adviser
In cases where the titles match completely, as with the "deputy assistant to the president and deputy counsel to the president," the salaries were identical. The three men and one woman holding those jobs in 2013 all made $158,500.
Same thing with "analyst." We found 15 men and women with the title analyst all making $42,000 a year. A man and woman with the title "assistant counsel of ethics" both earning $60,000 a year. Five men and women with the title "assistant director" making $50,000 a year. Another five men and women with the title "coordinator" making $45,000 a year.
But not all titles matched up so easily. The title of "deputy assistant to the president" comes with a range of add-on titles. There was a "deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of communications," and a "deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House military office." If we ignored the add-ons, we found that the average female deputy assistant made $141,562, or about $10,000 less than the average male deputy assistant who made $150,115.
And within titles, we did see some pay gaps -- in both directions. A woman with the title "director of operations" made $30,000 a year more than her male counterpart. A male with the title "calligrapher" made about $9,000 a year more than a female with the same title. (There's also a chief calligrapher, in case you were wondering.)
"Equal pay means equal pay for equal work and that's what we have at the White House," a White House spokesman told PunditFact. "Men and women in the White House in equivalent roles earn equivalent salaries."
He added that department heads all make the same salary and over half are women.
The numbers are clear. By the standard that men and women doing the same jobs should get the same pay, the Obama White House makes the grade.
When we reached Fiorina’s office, we learned that her comment emerged out of a running Republican dispute with the administration over its talking points on this issue. Fiorina had something very particular in mind when she referred to Obama’s "own measures."
Back in April, Obama marked Equal Pay Day by signing executive orders that imposed new rules for federal contractors. A line in the press release said, "Women still make just 77 cents on average for every dollar a man earns, and continue to face prejudice in the workplace. And that number hasn’t improved — the pay gap has stayed constant since 2002."
Republicans, including Fiorina, find the 77 cents figure to be a deceptive rallying cry, precisely because it ignores that women and men tend to hold different jobs than men and those jobs tend to be lower paying. They argued that by that standard, the White House is not much better than the average employer.
"When the White House talks about equal pay for women they use one set of math for themselves and one set for others," said Fiorina spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores. "The president uses this statistic to compare the average pay of women in all jobs to the average pay of men in all jobs. But when applying this rhetoric to assess pay in the Obama White House, they cry foul."
In that regard, Fiorina has a point.
PolitiFact rated a claim from Obama Mostly False that, "Women (are) paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men." The rationale: The gap isn’t all because women are paid less for doing the same work. A large part of the gap exists because women and men are doing different work.
But when the claim changes even slightly, it becomes more true. In 2014, Obama said simply that Women "make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns." That rated Mostly True because it removes the idea that the pay gap is solely related to discrimination.
This year, Obama was careful with his wording as well, simply saying that "this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work."
And all Fiorina said was Obama was not paying women equally "by his own measures."
Linda Babcock is an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a leading researcher on women in the workforce. Babcock told PunditFact that the pay gap at the White House and across the country is rooted in occupational segregation. Women tend to hold positions that pay less than men.
"We’ve made good progress on equal pay for equal work," Babcock said. "But that’s not fixing the whole problem. You look at any kind of organization and you will see relatively more women at the bottom and relatively more men at the top."
Babcock said research has found that many factors lie behind this. She said men are more likely to have more senior, more powerful advocates for them inside organizations. Babcock also noted than when deciding whether to promote someone, managers tend to be risk averse.
"We are more uncertain about women and we force them to meet a higher bar of performance before they go up to the next level," Babcock said.
Fiorina said that Obama is not paying women equally in his own White House by "his own measures."
That by "his own measures" in some ways is the key to this claim, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it by just reading Fiorina’s comment.
Fiorina is trying to reference past occasions when Obama said that "women (are) paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men." That’s Mostly False, because the pay gap is not all about discrimination.
But the framing of the discussion post-State of the Union was different. Obama said, "this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work."
Fiorina followed with, "Every woman across the nation agrees that equal pay for equal work is absolutely required," and then, Obama’s "not paying women equally by his own measures in his own White House."
The latest White House staffing data shows that there is a gap in average pay for men and women. But when the job titles are the same, largely so is the pay. In fact, for some job categories, women do a bit better than men.
Fiorina’s dispute had to do with past rhetoric, not the issue as she framed it.
We rate the claim Mostly False.
MSNBC, Morning Joe, Jan. 21, 2015
Mediaite, Carly Fiorina to Valerie Jarrett: Shouldn’t Equal Pay Start at the White House?, Jan. 21, 2015
Weekly Standard, Valerie Jarrett Confronted Over Unequal Pay for Women in White House, Jan. 21, 2015
White House, 2013 Report on White House staff, 2014
Washington Post, Male-female pay gap remains entrenched at White House, July 1, 2014
Harvard Business Review, Women in the Workplace: A Research Roundup, September 2013
PolitiFact, Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union address: annotated, Jan. 21, 2015
White House, Taking Action in Honor of National Equal Pay Day, April 8, 2014
PolitiFact, Barack Obama ad says women are paid "77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men", June 21, 2012
Interview, Sarah Isgur Flores, spokeswoman for Carly Fiorina, Jan. 21, 2015
Interview, Linda Babcock, professor of economics, Carnegie Mellon University, Jan. 22, 2015
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