President Obama's election-year push to draw attention to women's wages backfired amid scrutiny of the White House's own gender-pay gap, but a close analysis of the salaries of his senior aides shows a far more complex picture.
Obama has elevated more women to senior positions and salaries over the last two years, and, on average, among those making six figures, women earn more than their male counterparts.
The latest debate over equal pay comes as Democrats fine-tune their midterm messaging and aim to maintain their own gender-gap advantage at the polls. In 2012, Obama topped Mitt Romney by 12 points among women, and Democrats hope to continue the trend and put Republicans on the defensive.
At a White House event on Tuesday, Obama said more needs to be done to enforce pay equity, citing census data showing that women nationwide on average make 77 percent of what men do.
But an American Enterprise Institute study highlighted an inconvenient figure for the White House: In total, women staffers in 2013 earned 88 percent of what men did.
For a president who claims to champion women in the workplace, anything less than pay parity undercuts Obama’s argument.
But the White House salary figures tell another story. Obama has elevated far more women to senior positions and salaries over the last two years after facing criticism and a slew of negative stories late in his first term suggesting that he operated the White House as an exclusive boys club that alienated women.
When reviewing 2013 White House staffer salary figures, the most recent available, women account for 70 of the 150 highest-paid staffers — those making more than $100,000 — according to a Washington Examiner analysis.
Moreover, those top female White House aides earn more on average than their male counterparts at $128,600 for the women and $120,600 for men.
In addition, 10 out of the top 19 highest-paid staffers are women. Those women, all of whom earn $172,200, include senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and assistants to the president Danielle Crutchfield, Danielle Gray (she left the White House in January), Katy Kale, Alyssa Mastromonaco, Lisa Monaco, Cecilia Munoz, Jennifer Palmieri, Kathryn Ruemmler, and Christina Tchen.
Those figures mark a rise in the number — and percentage — of women holding high-salaried positions compared to 2011 White House data, which showed 121 employees making at least $100,000 – 47 of them women and 74 men.
Seven women made $172,200, the top White House salary at that time, compared to 14 men.
The numbers also show far more women staffers in senior posts than in 2005, the first year of President George W. Bush's second term. That year women filled 33 of the 81 positions earning more than $100,000. Of the 19 highest paid at the time, just five were women.
Democrats are highlighting the pay issue in a clear partisan appeal to women. Obama on Tuesday signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay and directed the Labor Department to write rules requiring federal contractors to provide compensation data by race and gender.
Despite those moves, White House press secretary Jay Carney found himself on the defensive, facing questions about the gender disparity in the White House payroll.
Under fire over the 88 percent pay-equity gap, Carney stressed that the White House has worked hard to recruit women and promote them to senior levels.
“We are hard at work here at the White House, in the most transparent of ways, to ensure that women compete for and earn senior positions, that women are recruited for more junior positions so they're put in the pipeline for senior positions in the future,” he said.
“In fact, virtually every woman who sits in a senior staff office today was promoted internally within the White House or the administration to that position,” he added.
The latest salary statistics back up Carney's assertions, but it wasn't always this way.
During the fall of 2011, criticism about the male-dominated Obama White House reached a crescendo after Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men quoted the president’s former communications director Anita Dunn calling the White House a “hostile workplace” for women.
Dunn claimed the quote was taken out of context. But the perception that Obama prefers male-dominated environments, such as frequent golf outings with mostly male colleagues and off-hour hoops with NBA basketball stars, male cabinet officials and congressmen, has persisted even as he and his Democratic allies accuse the GOP of waging a “war on women.”
Statistics admittedly don't tell the whole story. Many male staffers may have left to make more money outside public service or pursue political ambitions of their own, allowing loyal female aides to rise up in the ranks.
Many of the brashest, testosterone-pumped aides that helped fuel perceptions of a White House boys club in the first term, such as Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley — two former chiefs of staff known for their in-your-face Chicago style — left the White House well before the re-election campaign began.
Jarrett is undeniably one of Obama's closest and most influential advisers, but since the first year the president took office, he has struggled to dispel the notion that women are taking a back seat to men when it comes to his inner circle. For instance, he has continued to hire male chiefs of staff during his second term - Jack Lew, then Denis McDonough.
Supporters, though, note that he has appointed women to critical positions, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Jennifer Lawless, director of American University's Women and Politics Institute, says Obama is clearly making progress in promoting women to senior White House roles but still could work on the perception that his most influential inner circle remains mostly men.
Still, the departure of some of the more hypermasculine personalities has helped, she argued.
“Even though it is still male-dominated, the personalities are somewhat different and may be a little bit more palatable,” she said.