The XX Factor

Republicans Are Totally for Equal Pay, Except When They’re Not

Someone stop him before he makes federal employment practices more transparent!

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Happy Equal Pay Day! According to the Department of Labor, today reflects on “how far into the current year women must work to match what men earned in the previous year.” To honor Equal Pay Day, President Obama will be signing two executive orders to create transparency in pay for federal employees, so that any existing discrepancies can be sussed out. One order will bar federal employers from retaliating against employees who discuss their compensation with one another, and another will require federal employers to submit a data report on what they’re paying people these days, complete with information on race and gender. Neither order will require anyone to change what they’re paying, but the hope is that greater transparency will make it easier to see if women are being underpaid compared with their male colleagues. 

Despite the feather lightness of these executive orders, the Republican National Committee is against them. Kirsten Kukowski, the RNC press secretary, issued a press release denouncing Obama. After assuring readers that “All Republicans support equal pay for equal work,” she goes on to claim that transparency “will cut flexibility in the work place for working moms and end merit pay that rewards good work.”

How? She doesn’t say. Indeed, she declines to describe what’s actually in the executive orders at all, just ominously warning that the orders “will make it nearly impossible for employers to tie compensation to work quality, productivity and experience, reduce flexibility in the workplace, and make it far easier to file frivolous lawsuits that line the pockets of trial lawyers.” I suppose it is true that it does reduce an employer’s “flexibility” to conceal that he’s paying female workers less than their male ones, but since it dramatically increases the flexibility of workers to find out what everyone else is getting paid, this seems to be a net gain for people who are concerned with “flexibility” as an abstract employment quality. 

Kukowski goes on to reiterate the usual conservative talking points that blame women themselves for being paid less, because “women and men hold different jobs in different industries and varying levels of experience.” But if the problem is just that women, in aggregate, are worth less, then why is there an objection to greater transparency? Indeed, if you’re confident that women are making less because they deserve less, you should welcome a federal database that has experience, title, and gender data in it. After all, won’t it just prove your point?

Sure, there’s always the danger that greater transparency will show that women are not being paid the same as men commensurate with their titles and experience. But this possibility should also not bother the RNC, due to their stated support for anti-discrimination laws. The worst thing that could happen is that some deserving women get a raise. Unless the official stance of support for equal pay for equal work is a smoke screen, it’s hard to understand exactly why the RNC is so hostile to having more information about how the federal government is paying people these days.