WASHINGTON - President Obama has called for creation of a governmentwide strategy "to address any gender pay gap in the Federal workforce," focusing on how salaries are set when employees are hired and when they are promoted.

"While salary ranges in the Federal workforce are generally determined by law, the fixing of individual salaries and other types of compensation can be affected by the exercise of administrative discretion," said a presidential memo issued Friday. "Such discretion must be exercised in a transparent manner, using fair criteria and adhering to merit system principles, which dictate that equal pay should be provided for work of equal value."

The memo orders the Office of Personnel Management to produce within six months an analysis of whether changes to the main pay system for white-collar employees, the General Schedule, "would assist in addressing any gender pay gap." OPM also is to report on possible new guidance to agencies "to promote greater transparency regarding starting salaries" and to make recommendations for other administrative actions or proposed legislation.

Individual agencies are to describe to OPM within three months their procedures for setting starting salaries, especially policies "that may affect the salaries of individuals who are returning to the workplace after having taken extended time off from their careers."

Agencies also are to describe their practices for evaluating employees for promotion.

The salary rate for a federal job generally is set by how the job is classified within the government's pay scales and is the same regardless of the employee's gender. However, agencies have some leeway in setting starting salaries if a new employee has "superior qualifications" or if the agency has "special needs," or if the employee was paid at a higher rate in a previous federal job.

About 43 percent of federal employees are women, compared with about 46 percent in the overall workforce. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data show that on a percentage basis, women are overrepresented at lower levels and underrepresented at senior levels in the government.

A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office showed that the gender pay gap in the federal workforce has narrowed over time as men and women increasingly share similar characteristics in terms of the jobs they hold, their educational attainment, and their working experience.

The GAO said that the gap was 28 cents on the dollar in 1988, 19 cents in 1998, and 11 cents in 2007. It further said that all but 7 cents of the 2007 gap was explainable by men being concentrated in higher-paying occupations "and, to a lesser extent, other factors such as years of federal experience and level of education."