Last Spring, I attended an event called Statement. The first day, a bunch of us money writers listened to panel after interesting panel, each taking on a different aspect of working within our field as women.
One of the panels in particular delved into economic inequality. The idea of comparable worth was brought up. It’s an argument that was made in the 80s that essentially says we should compensate those working in female-dominated fields the same as those working in male-dominated fields.
I was stunned. I’m too young to remember that argument in real time, and had been sheltered from it until Statement.
That doesn’t mean it’s not an argument I hadn’t considered before, though. So many excuses for the gender wage gap hinge on the fact that women tend to enter lower-paying fields than men. While we this is true, there are two contingencies we must consider alongside this argument:
- Even when we norm out for these differences in career choices, women still face a discriminatory pay gap.
- Why the hell do we pay those working in female-dominated fields less in the first place?
Historical Cultural Norms and the Gender Pay Gap
I actually unknowingly made an argument for comparable worth in The Feminist Financial Handbook, which was published the October before I attended Statement. From Chapter VII: The Elephant in the Womb. Full sourcing available in the book:
It is true that women tend to go into less lucrative fields. Jobs in fields like education and domestic work pay far less than opportunities available in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM.) It is also true that we have a cultural tendency to encourage our daughters towards these lower-paying fields, failing to nurture and praise talents that could one day be used in the higher-paying fields. We tend to do the opposite with our sons.
I am not going to sit here and tell you that you shouldn’t encourage your daughter towards STEM professions. If that is where their interests and talents lie, or it’s not and they simply want to get money out of their career rather than passion, I personally think it’s a good idea. I would say the same for our sons.
However, I also think we need to look at this issue on a deeper level. Why do fields like education and domestic work pay less? I’d argue that it’s less about the importance of the work and more about inherited cultural norms we don’t even think to question.
Teachers, for example, are in high demand in many parts of the United States. The profession requires a quality education, and skills beyond content knowledge. You have to actually be able to apply the concepts you learned about in school to your work and interactions with human beings. Those human beings will grow up to be taxpayers and hopefully innovators, pushing our societies to what we hope will be higher planes of moral and material comfort. We all want our children to have a better life than we did, and a huge part of making that happen is getting a good education from skilled teachers.
Yet, this profession notoriously pays low wages. Over the past year, there have been multiple teacher strikes across the country, often in some of the lowest-paid regions.
Another example is domestic work. In America, more than 90% of workers in this labor-intensive field are female, and immigrant populations are disproportionately represented. Keeping in mind that many workers in this industry have employers who illegally pay under the table—presumably at lower-than-legal wages–and therefore do not have their wages reported to the government, the average weekly wage of domestic workers in private households in the fourth quarter of 2017 was $398.72. Adding insult to injury, female domestic workers are often subjected to physical, sexual, emotional and/or verbal abuse within the households where they work .
Compare this to a field involving manual labor where men typically work: construction. Here, the average American weekly pay in that fourth quarter of 2017 was $977.99/week. That comes out to about $24.45/hour if you assume a 40-hour work week, and you may have benefits and protections as an employee, especially if you’re in a union. I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture—this field has its problems, too. In particular, opioid addiction tends to be high, but that is another issue for another day.
The average domestic worker gets paid less than half that of the average construction worker, and neither job is great for your body long-term. One field is dominated by women, and the other by men.
When we look back on our liberation as women, we have to think about the work we used to do for free. Domestic labor and raising children was the work of women—and our society and cultural norms dictated that we did it all for free. Education was one of the first fields where women were able to find some equal footing, but again, the compensation in this field tends to be low. Men, on the other hand, had their value assessed by their ability to bring in an income and provide for their family.
So which is more true: women gravitate towards fields that pay less, or we as a society value the fields that women are traditionally encouraged towards at a lower dollar amount?
It’s probably a little bit of both. But when we recognize that the field has been devalued because of the gender that’s dominated it rather than the actual value of the work, we can take steps towards fixing the system rather than placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of young women as they choose their career paths.
Comparable Worth in the Real World
The gender pay gap doesn’t just affect womxn. It affects our entire society. I loved this thread by Piggy from Bitches Get Riches explaining how this plays out when it comes to child care decisions, and the fact that those actually doing the hard, on-the-ground work are often compensated pitifully despite the mind-boggling costs.
The Twitter Thread on the Pay Gap and Comparable Worth
Comparable Worth in the Early Childhood Education
So the wage gap is a problem, forcing parents to make hard decisions about child care vs career before baby even arrives.
But because of rising rent across the country and the fact that when you’re taking care of infants and young children, you need a seriously low adult-to-child ratio to do things legally and safely, the money parents are paying rarely trickles down into the pockets of the people actually taking care of their kids in the form of larger salaries. Childcare workers still routinely make less than $10/hour, with the average right above the double-digit mark.
What if we cut daycare and early childhood education centers tax breaks and offered them lucrative incentives to move into our neighborhoods and communities like we do for oil and gas companies? Or automakers?
Is it because historically, women have taken care of children for free? So paying them anything at all is a generosity in our collective, societal eyes? While male-dominated fields like oil, gas and the world of vehicle production tend to either pay well or offer fantastic long-term benefits to W-2 employees? While the companies at large receive not just subsidies, but incentives, from both state and local governments?
Like Piggy, I don’t have any concrete, actionable answers, but I do think these are questions we should be asking. Because we sure as hell need the solutions. We’re not going to find them by telling moms their only choice is to stay home and sacrifice their economic independence.