Today is Equal Pay Day. What’s this about? In order to earn the same amount of money that a full-time, year round employed US man earned in 2014, a US woman working full-time and year round, has to work all of 2014 and up until today in 2015. That’s three and a half additional months. Put another way, women’s median annual earnings trail men’s by a divide of more than 20%, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Staring at this date on the calendar prompted two thoughts. The first is that the pay gap has stalled, not improved. In the past 10 years, it has narrowed by only 1.5%. At this glacial pace, it is not projected to close until 2058, 43 years from now, according to the IWPR data. This slow down suggests that women’s entry into the workforce, women’s increase in education, and women holding half of all employment will not, on their own, make a meaningful difference. In fact, the slight narrowing is not due to women earning more, but men earning less, as a result of the Great Recession and the ongoing flat wages for all across the country.
Can women do any more to remove the gap more quickly? I am persuaded that women have done as much as they can on their own, acting as individuals. What needs to happen now is policy changes, shifting the way work works so that it stops punishing those who are managing family care obligations. Work must be flexible enough so that all workers, male and female, can succeed in their jobs while succeeding in raising their families or caring for ill or elderly family members.
As the only country without paid family leave as a basic minimum labor standard, without paid sick days to recover your health or your child’s, we disadvantage family caregivers, primarily women who do most of the unpaid domestic labor. We treat child care as a personal family problem, rather than as an economic imperative and national crisis. The way we do work forces women to choose, much too often and with potentially devastating economic results, between showing up at work and giving birth, caring for family, or seeing to their own health.
This is so shortsighted – employers’ costs in recruiting and training go up, women’s employment is interrupted and earnings lost, families suffer, and communities have less income to support their economy. With less tax revenue, our public funds are lower than they could be, and our economy can’t operate at maximum efficiency when companies and individuals earn less than they should.
The second point is that the pay gap derives in part from women’s unpaid work, as much as from our paid work. I suspect that men earn more because if they were not doing that job, the cultural expectation is that they would be doing another job. What they are paid has to be enough to make them choose one position over another. Our cultural legacy about women’s labor is different.
A few short decades ago, many women didn’t work (particularly in homes where men’s wages were sufficient to sustain entire families, not the case now) because they were regarded as incompetent and undesirable in the workplace. Women’s abilities were seen as only valuable at home running households and raising children. If the alternative to women’s paid employment is non-employment, i.e. doing family care work, she needn’t be paid so much. We continue to regard domestic labor as “non-productive”, raising children as something anyone can do – just look at the wages we pay those who cook, clean, launder, and babysit or work in child care centers. If a woman would otherwise be non-productive at home, why pay her much to leave it and do something else? If the alternative is regarded as activity that generates no value, results in nothing, contributes nothing to the economy, then obviously that person is worth less in a labor force than someone who would otherwise be making money at a different workplace.
This persistent myth, that unpaid domestic labor has no economic value, pushes me to the brink! What is more economically significant than making people? They become, after all, the producers and consumers of the economy. A baby is the original consumer – when it arrives, goods and services are consumed for years. Like the wedding industry, the baby industry is a multi-billion dollar business. (Have you bought a jog stroller lately??) Years of unpaid labor will go into turning that adorable, drooling little human into an educated, thoughtful, moral, productive member of society, functioning citizen, tax-payer, contributing to the economy and community life. The work of making and raising people is what makes everything else in this world go. If you added up the monetary value of all the goods and services parents provide, mostly mothers, it would be between 21 and 50% of our GDP. That puts it in the trillions – TRILLIONS – of dollars. And because mostly women do it, and because as a society we have so little regard for it, it disadvantages them in the workforce, and makes them poorer than men at all ages, and twice as poor as men over age 65.
So don’t let Equal Pay Day only represent the value of women’s compensated labor. The elephant in the room, the missing piece of the puzzle, and the thing that must be solved before anything else gets solved is accepting the reality that money alone does not bestow value. The most important transaction between two people is the care they take of each other, not the money that changes hands. Family care is priceless, but at the moment it is priced less than everything else. And that simply has to change.
‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington