Do CEOs even think about what they pay women vs. men?

Phil: How about we debate equal pay this week?

Ethan: What is there to debate? Women should be paid the same as men for equal work. Pretty simple and pretty hard to disagree with.

Phil: Correct, yet you would think that President Barack Obama would at least walk the walk before going on tour with the message. A recent study shows that his own office pays women 91 cents for every $1 a man makes.

Ethan: Nothing I like better than a bunch of Republicans, who have complained that equal pay is not an issue, finally seeing the light and pointing out the problem of equal pay when a Democrat is the CEO.

Phil: Actually it’s about digging a little deeper before using the power of the presidential seal to embark on the fall election campaigns.

Ethan: Except the White House does have equal pay for equal work. People in similar jobs are paid the same. In corporate America, the difference is 7-9 percent in favor of men, so Obama has bucked the trend and proven we can create equal compensation.

Phil: And yet, overall, women in his White House make 9 percent less than men because more women hold entry level positions. You may also want to check with Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s office, as I think you’ll find the same holds true there. And, I suspect, many others.

Ethan: Yes, that is correct. And although women are paid equally for the same work, the fact that more are in entry level positions does show the need for more consciousness around training and promotion. But more importantly, it shows that even in a place where they are trying to do the right thing, there is much more to do. Imagine how bad it must be for those who work in businesses with a CEO who isn’t even trying to do the right thing.

Phil: Are you saying there are many CEOs consciously paying women less?

Ethan: I don’t know if there are many who consciously pay women less. I certainly hope not. But I believe there are many CEOs who don’t think about the issue at all. And because of that, there are great discrepancies.

Phil: Maybe those businesses that don’t think about it at all are simply hiring based on market value and productivity. Maybe they are not looking at someone’s gender and are deciding to pay people what they are worth.

Ethan: Are you saying women, as a group, are worth less than men?

Phil: You know me better than that. In fact, I know many companies with women in the highest ranks, making more than many men I know. The issue is that we need a society where we judge people on who they are without looking at gender, race or ethnicity.

Ethan: I don’t disagree, but unfortunately that isn’t happening. That’s why we need greater protections in the law. Greater protections like the ones Obama signed this week. Protections for workers on federal contracts to discuss their pay with colleagues without fear of retaliation. And a law requiring those same employers to report to the Department of Labor on what they pay women and men.

Phil: Discrimination is already illegal under the Constitution. If employers are paying people less because of their gender, they will, and should, be sued and fined. This is a matter for the courts. It is not a matter for more government intrusion into the private sector.

Ethan: Yes, it is a matter for the courts. The problem is that the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963 is no longer strong enough to protect workers. That is why we need to update the law with the Paycheck Fairness Act. But, as usual these days, Congress refuses to act.

Phil: Before you add more laws and regulations, maybe we should make sure other factors aren’t at play. For instance, it’s women’s right to step in and out of the workforce to be a mother. And could it be that their choice of college degrees are more focused on sociology and psychology, compared with engineering and finance, where the compensation is higher?

Ethan: I doubt it.

Phil: And what about how risky the jobs are, which have to pay more to attract workers?

Ethan: Phil, you started this column by saying there was a problem, at least in the president’s office. Are you saying this is the only place in America where this issue legitimately exists? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to find a different path toward erasing income equality, than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist?

Phil: My path is through the private sector being allowed to make decisions based on the market. Enforce discrimination laws as forcefully as possible. I believe pay levels may be more even than people realize; let’s assure everyone that all of the facts are before us, lest our agenda-driven politicians create another economic slowdown.

Ethan: I love that you are a dreamer. A laissez-faire dreamer, but a dreamer nonetheless.