The gender pay gap and why it persists

President Obama signed an executive order on Tuesday designed to boost equal pay for women. It makes it easier for women who work for federal contractors to find out what their co-workers are paid.

Here's what the president had to say: "A woman's got to work about three more months in order to get what a man got, because she's paid less. That's not fair. That's like adding an extra six miles to a marathon. It's not right."

President Obama signed an executive order mean to make pay more equal
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Now the president said that because the Census Bureau found that women make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. But that's one of the more lopsided figures in an issue that is hotly debated. Another federal study, for example, said the disparity was more like 88 cents for every dollar.

Laura Balson spoke at an equal pay rally in downtown Chicago on Tuesday.

"It's a multi-faceted problem and we need to attack it from all of these different angles," Balson said. "These laws can only do so much."

She is an attorney, a profession in which women make almost 14 percent less than their male counterparts.

Pay for women versus men is a hotly contested topic
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"You may hear a lot of people say, 'Well, I would give her the promotion but I know she has little kids at home. So I don't want to offer it to her because it may be a burden or it may be hard for her to work out child care.' And then conversely what they'd say about a man is, 'Well, it's time for deciding if "Jim" is going get a raise or not. You know, he's got a family to support.'"

A 2009 study found that while working mothers seek greater schedule flexibility, corporations increasingly value long hours men put in.

Women enter fields that pay less
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And while statistics indicate women are generally better educated than men these days, they tend to hold jobs that pay less.

For example, women make up 76 percent of school teachers but just 13 percent of engineers and 6.5 percent of neurosurgeons.

Balson said men were also more inclined to haggle over pay.

"A woman is more likely generally speaking to just say, 'Thanks very much. I'm excited to have the job. I'll start on Monday.'"

Told that was up to a woman, Balson responded, "Which is part of the reason we try to educate women about the fact that they have the right to negotiate."

But a study by a Harvard University economist this month said that neither improved bargaining skills for women nor government intervention on their behalf is the answer. What is needed, the study said, is a fundamental restructuring of the system.

The pay gap will narrow and may actually vanish when employers decide to stop paying for long hours and start paying for results that everyone may be able to achieve.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.